The doctor’s question is routine: Has anyone bothered or bullied you because of a food allergy? The children’s answers are disturbing. They describe being chased around the playground by classmates waving threatening food in their face or hiding it in their lunches.
And sometimes the bully is an adult, says allergist Sandra Hong, MD. Dr. Hong often talks to her patients about bullying around food allergies.
“For instance, a teacher might say, ‘Oh, we can’t have a party because Jimmy has a food allergy,’” she says.
Nearly 6 million children in the United States have food allergies. That equates to one in 13, or roughly two in every classroom, says Food Allergy Research & Education.
Bullying around food allergies is a growing problem, Dr. Hong says. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found about one-third of children with food allergies experienced bullying because of their medical condition.
Food allergy bullying sometimes is life-threatening, and can lead to underachievement in school, as well as headaches, stomachaches, depression and insomnia, Dr. Hong says. A child also might stop eating and lose weight over fear someone will taint his or her food.
“If you’ve never had a food allergy, it’s difficult to understand, but 40 percent of children have had a severe life-threatening episode,” Dr. Hong says. “Bullying is almost like waving a gun — these children can die.”
The key to stopping this problem is communication, Dr. Hong 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 life improves.
Questions you might ask your child include: Is anything going on at school? Has anyone bothered or teased you?
As a parent, you should watch for signs of bullying from siblings as well as friends, Dr. Hong says. Talk to teachers, caregivers and other parents about your concerns.
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.
The most common food allergies for children are peanuts, milk, wheat, eggs, soy and seafood.
For younger children, eating at the “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.
“At some schools it’s not popular,” Dr. Hong says. “At other schools, the child can bring a friend. It’s all in the way that schools sell it.”
You may teach your child early on about the dangers of eating a food allergen, but he or she also needs to know how to act in the face of harassment from bullies — especially when parents aren’t around.
Dr. Hong recommends these five tips for children:
Sharing these tips allows you to give your child a plan of action so he or she knows 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 let bullies know their behavior is not acceptable.