As hard as it is to believe, bullying happens to kids with specific food allergies, especially at school. Sometimes they might even describe being chased around the playground by classmates waving threatening food in their faces or hiding it in their lunches.
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And sometimes comments children hear from adults are experienced as bullying and may contribute to the social challenges, says pediatric psychologist Wendy Hahn, PsyD. “For example, a teacher may say, ‘Well, we can’t have a party because this student has a food allergy’,” she adds.
It’s a harsh reality often faced by children with food allergies. However, as Dr. Hahn points out, there are ways for children to cope and it requires attention and interaction from parents.
On the rise
Nearly 6 million children in the United States have food allergies. That equates to 1 in 13, or roughly two in every classroom, says the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization.
With the growing number of children and families affected by food allergies, the quality of life for an increasing number of families can be significantly impacted, which includes concerns related to bullying experiences, says Dr. Hahn. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found about one-third of children with food allergies experienced bullying because of their medical condition.
For those with food allergies, Food allergy bullying is associated with a life-threatening experience. The subsequent anxiety can significantly impact a child’s functioning and some examples may include school avoidance, academic underachievement, stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, and depression and social isolation. Out of fear, a child may also avoid eating.
For those children with food allergies, 40% have had a severe life-threatening episode. Says Dr. Hahn, “Though it may be difficult to understand for someone who has not had a food allergy, bullying related to food can have severe consequences.”
How parents can help
The key to stopping this problem is communication, Dr. Hahn says. Studies have found that about half of children who experience bullying have never told their parents. But when they do talk about it, they feel better and their quality of life improves.
Questions you might ask your child include: Is anything going on at school that bothers you? Has anyone teased you about your food allergies?
Watch for signs of bullying from various sources, including siblings and friends, and talk to teachers, caregivers, and other parents about any concerns. As Dr. Hahn points notes, children improve when parents are aware and supportive.
The Food Allergy Research & Education website offers fact sheets, videos and other helpful materials that parents can share with school administrators and others to help manage their child’s food allergies when they’re away from home.
How do schools handle food allergies?
The most common food allergies for children are peanuts, milk, wheat, eggs, soy and seafood.
For younger children, eating at a designated “food allergy table” makes sense because children often are messy. Peanut butter and milk, for instance, could easily end up in the wrong hands and mouths.
As children enter middle school, though, sitting at such a table may cause more anxiety, especially as social pressures mount. “At some schools, there can be a social stigma attached, and children can feel socially isolated or different from their peers,” Dr. Hahn says. “At other schools, the child can bring a friend. It’s all in the way that schools present it.”
5 steps children can take
You may teach your child early on about the dangers of eating a food allergen, but they also need to know how to act in the face of harassment from bullies — especially when parents aren’t around.
Dr. Hahn recommends these five tips for children:
- Stay calm, stand tall, be assertive and forcefully tell the bully to stop.
- Immediately contact the teacher or an adult in charge
- Have a buddy system in place for support, and when going into situations where food allergy bullying may be more likely to happen, stay near a supportive friend. Having a friend who will stick up for you can be helpful.
- Put together an action plan for an allergic reaction, such as carrying an epinephrine auto-injector.
- Inform your parent as soon as possible about bullying incidents.
Sharing these tips allows you to give your child a plan of action so they know the steps to take if a problem develops. Getting the issue of food allergy bullying out in the open not only helps empower your child but also helps spread awareness.