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Celiac Teens: Dealing With Friends

I am 15 years old and was diagnosed with celiac disease almost two years ago.  After many years of stomach pains and rheumatoid arthritis I was relieved to finally have an answer.  Even today I still remember the shock that comes with the realization that you will never have another bite of "normal" food again.  After coping with the different emotional struggles that accompany a life changing diagnosis, I still had some difficulties. Most of these had to do with my friends.  Over time I have learned how to handle the awkward social encounters pertaining to my celiac disease.  

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Photo: CC--ArgyleistHere are some of the most common:

  • Refusal:  I had some friends that flat out refused to eat in front of me, in order to not make me "feel bad.". Although I am flattered that they would sacrifice something for me, this reaction made me feel uncomfortable.  I feel the best way to handle this situation is to be prepared if possible.  If you know that for example, your class is having a party, bring some gluten free cookies.  This will help you avoid an awkward conversation as well as make you feel more comfortable and less alone.
  • Insensitive jokes:  I also found that some of my friends make rude comments about my incapability to eat their food. I urge you to remember that this is a reaction due to a combination of ignorance and not knowing what to say.  I usually use humor or sarcasm to lighten the situation.  If someone continues to be rude after talking to them, it gives me a hint that I probably shouldn't be friends with them.  A true friends will except with or with out celiac disease. 
  • Embarrassment:  When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease I was afraid to tell my friends and eat in front of them.  I was really nervous about bringing my "different" food to school. My mom ended up taking me on a one on one shopping trip to find the best tasting gluten free food we could find (It was really fun.) When I faced my insecurity and ate at school, I was shocked to find that my friends loved the food. I think that because I felt so confident about the food my mom bought me, my friends were more interested in trying it.  Also, just remember your friends care about you and want to help you.
  • Carelessness:  One of the largest problems I have experienced is a friend exposingme to gluten by accident.  For example, a friend drinking out of my water bottle, or sticking their "glutenized" hand in my pretzel bag.  Usually I see them and resolve the situation, but it is still important to talk to your friends about accidentally exposing you to gluten.  Most friends are very understanding, but everyone is human and therefore makes mistakes.
  • Baking:  Soon after I was diagnosed with celiac disease, a boy asked me to the school dance by giving me a homemade gluten free pretzel.  It was really sweet and I felt really bad that I couldn't eat it. Because he was not aware of cross contamination, I could not be sure he took the proper baking precautions.  I someone bakes you gluten free food, politely except it but explain to them that you can't eat it.  Cross contamination is not something to mess around with, and must be taken seriously.  Friends will understand.
  • Disbelief:  Because of my celiac disease and arthritis I missed a lot of school this past year.  I had some friends the refused to believe my reaction to gluten was actually bad.  I found this problem sorted itself out over time.  As a beginner I sometimes messed up my diet, and got violently sick in front of my friends. Eventually all of my peers believed me, I just needed to be patient and understanding with them.

Although living with celiac disease is hard, I find that it is a part of my identity that I have learned to like.  After going through embarrassing situations, my confidence has increased and my friendships have strengthened.  When dealing with your friends remember to be patient and know that everyone makes mistakes.  As a teenager these situations can be embarrassing, so remember that you are special and your illness is not something to be ashamed of.  I can honestly say that I am proud to be gluten free! welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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5 Responses:

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said this on
14 Aug 2012 7:58:19 AM PST
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have a celiac son going to first grade this year (first time eating lunch at school!), and it really helps me as a parent to hear what you have faced. You have a wonderful attitude, and sounds like you have been blessed with good friends!

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said this on
20 Aug 2012 3:09:48 AM PST
I agree with Robin. Thank you for being willing to share your experiences as a teen with celiac disease. My daughter is 13 and we're preparing her for those times when her friends will want to eat at a pizza place or some other situation where she'll be very limited in her food choices. She has some good friends who understand but make the same mistakes as yours and put a gluten contaminated hand in her food bag. As a mom this kind of thing contributes to my gray hair. I'm glad to see that you handle this kind of thing with both grace and wisdom. Good for you, honey!

Lori Stern
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said this on
21 Aug 2012 7:45:50 AM PST
Hi Emma,
I am the coordinator of the celiac program at Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. I was wondering if I could publish this article in our monthly newsletter? The newsletter goes out to all of our celiac families and this article would be so helpful for them!
Thanks! Lori

Emma Haan
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said this on
25 Aug 2012 9:42:52 PM PST
Of course you can! I would love to have a copy after you publish it. Thank you!

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said this on
21 Aug 2012 10:12:49 AM PST
Thanks for telling us all your story! I'm 18 and was diagnosed about 2 years ago myself and I know EXACTLY how you feel!! It's very awkward trying to explain your disease to anyone let alone your peers! I'm curious to see if college will differ from high school.

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