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The psychological impact of allergies

Nadi FernandoFrom: Managing the teen years 

Nadi Fernando, Psychologist

Nadi Fernando, Psychologist

The Children’s Hospital at Westmead

Some key points from Nadi’s talk were:

  • Understand that adolescents just want to fit in – they don’t want to be different to their friends.

  • A lot of factors can impact the way that teens manage their allergies including their own personality traits (eg being confident, shy or anxious). Other factors include peer group acceptance, how many allergens they have to avoid, parental approaches and attitudes.

  • Having a teen involved in their allergy management from an age appropriate time can help them cope better when they take on more responsibility for their own allergy management during adolescence.

  • Brains are still “under construction” until about 25 years of age. Problem solving and decision making centres of the brain are not fully developed during adolescence, so it is important to support our teens and have some understanding of this process. Teens are wanting more independence during adolescence so parents can support them by being open in their communication.

  • Communication can be difficult. It is important to pick your times to have particular discussions, including those on allergy management, with your teens. When they just get home from school and are tired and hungry, it’s probably not the best time. If they are feeling anxious about something such as an assignment or a friendship issue, it may also not be the best time. Many parents like to chat with their teens during car trips where there are minimal distractions and it’s a less confrontational setting. You could also try when you are doing the dishes or preparing a meal together (activity is good to take away the pressure of the conversation).

  • When communicating with teens be careful with how you speak. Use “I” statements not “you” statements. “I was really worried when……” is better than “You make me really worried when….”. Work with your teen – negotiate boundaries, ask them what they want and need and reach a compromise. With severe food or insect allergies there are some non-negotiables e.g. carrying EpiPen® and ASCIA Action Plan, but you can negotiate about how this is done. Girls may like to go shopping for a cute handbag and boys may prefer an ankle holster or waist sportsbelt/bumbag or backpack.

  • Be aware of your own emotions when talking to your teen.  This will also help model to your teen how to appropriately handle difficult emotions (e.g. in an argument, noticing you’re angry and deciding to step away from the situation for a ‘time out’ instead of continuing or escalating the argument).

  • Try to work out why your teens are showing the emotions they are. If they are angry when you talk with them about not taking their EpiPen®, is that anger about their anxiety around being different? Sometimes teens are just angry because they want to be angry. Parents don’t always have to fix these things; just be there to be a sounding board and acknowledge their feelings.

  • Help your teen to understand their emotions by seeing if they can label what they are feeling – am I anxious, embarrassed, angry, sad, frustrated etc? Sometimes anger can be confused with being anxious or embarrassed.

  • Work through a process to help respond to a problem with your teen rather than imposing a solution. If they constantly forget their EpiPen® ask them what might help them to remember it. It might be that they don’t want to use the pouch/backpack they have always had, they might like to use a pencil case, sport backpack or something different.

  • Anxiety is a normal human response, even though it is uncomfortable. Anxiety can be thought of as like the body’s smoke alarm system. A smoke alarm can be triggered when a piece of toast is burning as well as when the house is burning down. Our anxiety can be very protective, but it can become a problem. It is worth addressing anxiety when it feels excessive, uncontrolled or intrusive, persistent or impacts on everyday life by stopping us doing things we really want to do or need to do. Addressing anxiety means seeing a doctor or psychologist and learning some skills to help manage anxiety before it slowly restricts our lives.

  • Goldilocks (or ‘just right’) parenting is about finding a balance in your parental protection of and anxiety for your child, while allowing your child to explore and manage their own condition. This means being there to equip and support them to manage themselves.  It also means giving yourself a break and acknowledging that there is no such thing as a perfect parent – they’ll be times when you might not have the balance right, take these moments as an opportunity for learning and seek support when needed.

  • Look after yourself. If you aren’t coping seek help for yourself. It’s the oxygen mask principle – you can’t look after someone else if you haven’t looked after yourself first. This is why, when flying, you are told to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others around you including children.

  • Try to remember that you are the lighthouse for your child’s journey on the seas of adolescence. You aren’t steering their ship – they are! You, however, are guiding the way and are a stable place to rest and recover when they need.

Content created 2017