Teenagers, food allergy and anaphylaxis

You are dancing with the glamourous boy - or girl - at the party who you have been fancying all evening - and you know sometime soon the dance may develop into a kiss but...You also know that if they have been eating peanuts and there is even a speck of peanut dust left on their lips that could cause you a dramatic food allergic reaction. Do you risk breaking the mood - or do keep quiet and risk your own life? To an anxious parent the answer seems obvious - to a teenager it may not. To help allergic teenagers deal with these kinds of problems the Anaphylaxis Campaign (www.anaphylaxis.org.uk) runs a series of workshops on youth awareness. Jennifer Percival, who designed their format, explains a bit more about them.

Discovering your child has a potentially life-threatening food allergy can be very frightening for a parent. So much so that many need to control all aspects of their children's lives. That is, until the day they become old enough to go out with their peers. Letting your child be responsible for their own food choices can be extremely difficult for parents and frustrating for the child who may feel over-protected. Precautions save lives - but how do you get your ‘rebellious’ teenager to take care?

The Anaphylaxis Campaign aims to help people understand and manage allergy. The majority of fatalities occur in people who are either unaware of their risk or have not been taught the life-saving procedures. Knowing that the transition to adulthood is hard for allergic teenagers, the Campaign runs a series of workshops for 11-20 year olds to help them assess risk and manage it safely.

The workshops
These workshops have been run across the country and have been extremely popular and successful. Up to 20 children attend each workshop. The wide age range is managed by putting them into smaller groups. The course is fully interactive. The factual aspects are covered in a lecture or video.

One thing we have found essential is to provide a demonstration of how the automatic adrenaline injector works. Many participants admit to never having seen the needle and of being afraid of being hurt should they need adrenaline. In addition to checking their knowledge and technique, they are reassured that no harm will come to them if adrenaline is given unnecessarily. We explain that the only dangerous thing is not carrying your adrenaline with you at all times.

Other topics covered include:
• Signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction
• What happens in your body during anaphylaxis
• How to store and label your medical kit
• How to read food labels and assess risks
• What do ‘'may contain nuts' warnings mean?
• Taking responsibility for what you eat
• Ways to reassure your parents that you can cope
• Handling situations such as eating in restaurants, friends' houses and at parties
• Learning how others manage their allergies

This day is for the teenagers. The trainers find out what they already know and what they think is ‘risky’ and ask them what they would like to learn. Flip chart sheets entitled ‘Risks I would never take' and ‘Risks I take sometimes' are given to each small group to fill in. This exercise shows the trainers the teenagers' current attitudes and behaviours around their allergies.

Participants are encouraged to share good and bad experiences. They are asked to bring their emergency equipment with them. We ask them to take it out and show everyone how they label and store it. This exercise helps participants get practical tips from each other. We encourage them to tell us how they handle school situations.

We ask children for any frustrating situations they've experienced. Examples include: being refused a school trip, not being invited to a friend's birthday party or having a parent watch them all the time.

The morning concentrates on the facts, avoiding the dangers and sharing of experiences. In the afternoon, we use role play to help them learn assertive responses. These exercises give the teenagers a chance to practise handling obstacles and saying what they want and how they will manage.

Each group demonstrates their chosen scenario, and at the end the other participants say what they found useful. These sessions prove to be extremely popular. They give participants the chance to share their past negative experiences and learn ways to overcome the barriers that they've faced.

At the end of the day, the ‘'risks' sheets are returned and we ask if anyone would like to change anything. The trainers can see which risks they are now more prepared to take seriously and how they plan to integrate safe protocols and systems into their everyday lives. Evaluation at the end of the day shows the participants benefited most from hearing stories from peers in the same situation as themselves. Many of them had never met another allergic person and found the opportunity to network invaluable.

A year after attending the workshops, participants were sent a questionnaire which showed they felt more confident to tell people about their condition and ask for information on the content of food. They also now carried adrenaline at all times.

These positive testimonies demonstrate the value of this work in empowering young people to separate safely from their parents' governance. The workshops do help teenagers take more control of their day-to-day lives and increase their confidence to manage themselves safely.

What the teenagers said was the most useful thing they had learnt and how they rated the day:
* Doing the role play. 9/10. Jane, aged 11
* Being able to talk to others in the same position as me. 7/10. Tom, aged 13
* Courage to ask people what a food has got in it. 10/10. Ben, aged 13
* That other people also have allergies like me - and to check labels and always carry my epipen. 9/10. Anna, aged 14
* Meeting other nut allergy sufferers. Information about food labels. Would have liked more personal experiences. 7/10. Millie, aged 16

If you, or your child, would like to know more about or attend one of these workshops please contact Jane Bentley, The Anaphylaxis Campaign, PO Box 275, Farnborough, Hants, GU14 6SX. Tel. 01252 373793 www.anaphylaxis.org.uk

First published in 2004

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