Food allergies can trigger stress and anxiety

Parents and counselors can help kids and teens learn to advocate for themselves and manage their food allergies

teens in cafeteria

For many kids with food allergies, navigating school and life to avoid allergens can take an emotional toll.

Image Source/Photodisc/Getty Images

Food allergies are surprisingly common, affecting about one in 13 kids (at least in the United States) and a little more than one in 10 adults. Yet these allergies are a strange beast: As long as people don’t eat the taboo foods, they suffer no symptoms. Still, navigating life to avoid accidental exposure to those foods can become stressful — both for patients and their families.

Gian Lagemann, a high school senior in Saratoga, Calif., is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. In elementary school, he had to sit at the nut-free table every day at lunchtime. After a few years, Gian could no longer stand the isolation. He moved to a regular table where his friends were sitting. “I was a little scared at first, because some of them had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Gian recalls. “Eventually I just got over it. I told them to not get too close to me, and to wash their hands.”

Isaac Judy, a 15-year old in St. Louis, Mo., remembers feeling frustrated when relatives appeared to belittle his peanut allergy. At a family birthday party when he was about five, Isaac noticed there was peanut butter in the ice cream being served. He told his relatives he couldn’t have it. One of them disregarded his warning. “She chased me around with the ice cream trying to get me to have one bite,” Isaac recalls.

Food allergies are becoming more common. But many people still “don’t seem to understand their seriousness,” says Tamara Hubbard. She’s a family therapist in the suburbs of Chicago, Ill. She and other licensed counselors help families through the anxiety and stress that can come with managing food allergies. “They’re navigating aunts and uncles, sometimes even grandparents, who don’t get it,” she says. “Or they get it — and choose not to respect the guidelines.”

Elizabeth Matsui is an allergist at the University of Texas at Austin. She often talks with parents who are anxious about their child’s food allergies. Having a 19-year old who’s allergic to peanuts, she understands their worries. But, she notes, it’s also important for parents to “promote independence that’s age-appropriate as they grow.”

Hubbard suggests that parents and children work together to create guidelines for managing food allergies. One rule might be to always carry auto-injectable epinephrine (EPP-in-NEHF-rin). That’s a fast-acting drug that calms allergic reactions. But follow-through has practical considerations. Isaac finds the rectangular Auvi-Q fits into his pants pockets more easily than the more commonly used EpiPen. Teens “need to decide what works for them within the guidelines of what keeps them safe,” Hubbard says.

Parents also should help their children self-advocate. “They have to come up with language or phrases they’re comfortable with,” says Hubbard. They might say: “‘I’d like the grilled cheese, but I have a peanut allergy so I need to know how the food is made,’ or some such.” But Hubbard realizes that “introverts may have a harder time with that.”

Gian’s advice to teens at parties and other social settings: “Don’t forget to check with whoever is bringing food or making food, if there are peanuts or whatever you’re allergic to. Be safe. Don’t take any risks if you’re not sure.”

Esther Landhuis is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She worked on her high school newspaper and spent a decade studying biology before discovering a career that combines writing and science.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Health & Medicine