Are school playgrounds getting meaner? It certainly seems so when you hear media reports about children being singled out for being different, whatever “different” may mean.
A while back, I was surprised to receive a call from a friend whose child had been involved in a bullying encounter. She was embarrassed to admit that her son had been part of a group who thought it would be funny to put a small bag of seeds on the desk of a child with a severe seed allergy. Fortunately, the plan was aborted and the teacher was alerted to the situation. The school acted promptly, suspending the perpetrators for a day.
While my friend fully supported the school’s decision, she felt that a one-day suspension was not enough. Without follow-up, “it was a day off school,” in her view. With the support of the school and family of the child who had been targeted, she arranged for her son to lead a class discussion on food allergies. He showed the “Friends Helping Friends” video, which features teens talking about the challenges of having a food allergy and what friends can do to support them. He taught his classmates how to give a dose of life-saving medication, using an EpiPen trainer. He told them that food allergies were no laughing matter. He had learned from his mistake.
From time to time, Anaphylaxis Canada receives reports from parents whose children have been have singled out because of their food allergies. Typically, this involves name calling (“peanut boy”), taunting (drawing humiliating pictures of a child with food allergies) or excluding kids from activities. Food has at times been used as a weapon: waving a peanut butter sandwich in a child’s face or smearing a bit of peanut butter on the arm of a peanut allergic child “to see what would happen.”
Some of the threats have been extremely nasty: “I’ll shove a peanut butter sandwich down your throat.” Whether verbal or physical, these negative behaviours have the potential to be emotionally and physically damaging. They cannot be tolerated.
Many school initiatives – such as anti-bullying programs and awareness sessions about anaphylaxis – teach children to be respectful of others and not to stand by and watch when bullying incidents occur. We believe that education programs are making a difference. However, parents should know what to do if they think their child is being bullied.
Keep the lines of communication open.
“Tell me about it” is a good opening line to get your child to share his feelings. As your child speaks, be quiet and listen. Let him tell you how he feels about the situation, before probing for the facts. You need to understand how his sense of well-being has been affected.
Support your child.
Tell him: “It’s not your fault.” No matter what prompts a bully to act, such behaviours cannot be justified. Work with your child to develop an effective plan that allows him to stand up to the bully assertively, avoid potentially harmful situations, and regain his sense of power and well-being.
Report bullying incidents to the school.
Attempts to confront the bully or his parents alone may backfire. Bullies learned their behaviour somewhere, and parents of bullies may become defensive and blame your child. But bullies need to “unlearn” their behaviour. Tell school personnel (teacher, principal, or counselor) the facts about the incident, such as date and time, who was involved and what happened. Tell them how the experience has affected your child and ask for their support through active involvement. How will the bully be disciplined? What can be done to educate others who may have supported the bully tacitly by doing nothing?
Teach your child to tell an adult about bullying situations.
Most incidents occur when adults are not around. Children have been conditioned not to “tattle,” and may feel pressured to respect the playground code of silence. Even if your child can manage negative situations on his own, teach him that by alerting you and school personnel about bullying incidents, he will help himself and others. Without adult intervention, the bully is likely to go on to pick on other kids.
Recognize that bullying incidents do happen.
But don’t set your child up to expect that he will be bullied because of allergies, as this may create undue anxiety. Instill a positive sense of self in your child and remind him that he, like all children, deserves to be treated with respect.
School bullying won’t be eradicated; there will continue to be bullies and targets. How-ever, if everyone concerned is truly committed to “zero tolerance,” the number of such incidents can be significantly reduced.
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.