A new study shows kids with food allergies are more likely to be bullied at school. Unfortunately, the findings were recently proven in Pennsylvania, where a student with a food allergy was threatened with an allergy provoking food. Joshua Feblowitz, a Thrive contributor who has lived with severe food allergies his whole life, comments on the study’s findings and offers advice to parents on how they can help protect their children from food bullies.
Having a child with food allergies poses challenges that go well beyond watching what he eats. Sometimes other kids (and adults) in your child’s life won’t understand food allergies; they may become overly anxious or not take the problem seriously enough. And sometimes, unfortunately, kids can be cruel. Bullies can use a victim’s food allergies to taunt, tease and even threaten.
A recent study, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, found that one in four children with food allergies has experienced some form of food-related bullying. This type of bullying becomes more common as kids get older, with over 50 percent of food allergic kids in grades 6-10 reporting an instance of food bullying. In one particularly disturbing case, a teenager was suspended from school and charged with assault after purposely smearing peanut butter on the forehead of a nut-allergic student.While every case of bullying should be taken seriously, the stakes are much higher when it comes to food allergy-related bullying. Like all bullies, allergy bullies prey on perceived differences and weaknesses, but they may not necessarily understand the potential consequences of their actions. They make think that a classmate is “afraid” of certain foods or eats “weird” foods, not understanding how deadly a food allergy can be. Taunts and teasing, while serious, are nothing compared to the potential danger of a bully who uses an anaphylaxis-provoking food to threaten a classmate.
Unfortunately, there will always be bullies. However, there are some things you can do to help your child with food allergies cope and hopefully avoid becoming the victim of their abuse:
- Teach your child and his peers about food allergies. If your child understands how allergies work, what the symptoms are and what is happening inside his body, not only will he be better able to keep himself safe, he’ll also be able to educate his friends and classmates. If peers understand what food allergies are and the potential severity of the consequences, it will help protect your child from bullies who may not realize the dangerous nature of their teasing.
- Encourage your child to be proactive about his allergies. In order for your child to be safe eating at friend’s houses or restaurants, it’s important that they are comfortable speaking up about their allergies and asking questions. Helping your child learn to do this will also boost their confidence and make them comfortable with who they are, making them less vulnerable to bullies.
- Help your child feel “normal” and not left out. By helping your child participate in school activities and extracurriculars, you allow them to build a stronger social network— one of the best defenses against bullying. Try packing a special snack or dessert for school events, like a Halloween party or birthday, so that your child can participate. You might also send along allergy-safe foods to friend’s houses to make playdate snacking easier. Making special arrangements for an event will help things go more smoothly as far as allergies are concerned, and won’t call as much attention to the issue. It will also help keep your child from feeling “different.”
- Stress the importance of talking to someone if they’ve been bullied. Like any kind of bullying, there are some tried and true strategies for dealing with an allergy bully. Sometimes it’s best to ignore them or just tell them to “go away.” But make sure your child understands that if they feel their safety is threatened, they should tell someone: a teacher, a school nurse, a guidance counselor or you. This is especially true if the bully has ever used the physical food as a means of intimidation.
Navigating life with food allergies can be difficult enough without the added danger of a bully’s taunts or threats exacerbating the issue. Fortunately, most people your child will encounter will be helpful, supportive and understanding about his allergy. But, for those unfortunate exceptions, help give them the tools they need to protect themselves from an allergy bully.