Food Allergy Bullying: How to Spot It and Actions to Take

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School

It’s the kind of story that leaves parents of food-allergic children nervous and baffled – a schoolyard bully has been seen waving an allergen-filled sandwich in a vulnerable kid’s face.

Studies have found that about one-third of children and teens with food allergies are bullied, simply because of this condition. Definitions of bullying vary, but children report they’ve been taunted, teased, threatened and, in some cases, had life-threatening allergens thrust in their faces, or even slipped into their lunch boxes surreptitiously.

The threatening behavior was mostly likely to happen at school, with classmates as the perpetrators – although in a minority of cases, school staff were also faulted for teasing or singling out.

A wakeup call came in a 2013 Mount Sinai Medical Center study. It found that almost half of parents were unaware their children felt they had been bullied due to their allergies. Families are wise to ready themselves to counter allergy bullying, given its frequency.

The repercussions for children targeted by bullies can be substantial. Not only could they potentially consume a life-threatening allergen, researchers have found children who are targeted by bullies have higher levels of anxiety and a lower quality of life. (They did fare better when their parents were aware of the bullying). Surveys also have revealed that children receiving unwanted attention about their allergies had more trouble managing the allergy, and were less likely to wear medical identification.

To gain insights, Allergic Living asked two experts who work with allergic children and teens what families can do to manage the risks of food allergy bullying at school and online.

How to Spot if Your Child is Being Bullied

Dr. Eyal Shemesh of Mount Sinai in New York
Set the stage for open communication before trouble arises. Make it a habit to talk about your day, and to ask a child open-ended questions about theirs, says psychologist Dr. Linda Herbert. That way, it will be easier to notice a change in attitude or behavior. Sudden anxiety about going to school, or the child changing whom she or he eats lunch with could be signs that something is wrong.

Research shows that kids don’t always know what constitutes “bullying.”

Herbert directs the psychosocial clinical program at Children’s National Hospital’s allergy and immunology division in Washington, D.C. She suggests asking kids how their day was, who they ate lunch with, or whether there were any surprises in their day.

Herbert’s research shows you may have to ask kids about their interactions in different ways to discover whether there’s a problem.

“Kids don’t always understand what bullying behavior is and isn’t. Ask open questions like, ‘How was your day today? Who did you have lunch with today? Did you have any surprise activities?” she says.

Download Link: AL’s Bullying Handout

Dr. Eyal Shemesh, a pediatrician and psychiatrist at the school of medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, asks all his patients with food allergies about their experiences with other children. “Does anyone give you a hard time about your allergies? Who did you tell?” he will say. Parents can try these questions, too.

Teenagers can be less forthcoming to their parents about taunting or threats. If you are concerned and your child seems to be tight-lipped, your teen’s friends or their parents could be sources of information about what’s going on at school.

How to Help If Your Child Is Bullied
  1. First, record the details of any bullying incidents. Investigate by calmly asking the basics: when and where did the incidents happen, who was present, and what did they do or say? Did any adults witness this?
  2. If physically threatened with an allergenic food, a child should be taught to run away to avoid a dangerous situation, says Shemesh. But taught as well to tell an adult immediately.
  3. Take the lead: surveys suggest that most kids do report allergy bullying. Once adults find out about it, Shemesh says it’s incumbent on them, not the child, to recreate a safe environment.
  4. Reassure your child the bullying is not their fault, and that you will help them through it, Herbert says. If the bullying is ongoing, validate your child’s feelings. Say that it’s normal to feel sad and angry or scared when someone is threatening you. Herbert practices role-playing scenarios with kids anxious about allergy bullying.
  5. Encourage spending time with friends who make your child feel confident and comfortable.

Both experts say to advise a child not to fight back – even they want to. They should try to avoid showing emotion to the bully, and instead let adults know what happened right away.

How to Talk to School Staff

Once you’ve heard from your child, contact the school principal or vice principal. In a serious situation, do so immediately. Herbert says to ask for a copy of the bullying policy and provide the specifics of the incident (written as well as verbal). If there are texts, photos or notes from a bully, provide those as well.

Schools usually take reports of bullying seriously, and will speak to a child accused of bullying and that child’s parents. Allergic Living notes that the school’s response will depend on the seriousness of the incident. It could range from discussion to educate the bully, to a suspension, or even to contacting police.  In successful anti-bullying programs, the emphasis is usually on helping the bullied child, re-educating the bully, and preventing future situations through anti-bullying programs that involve the whole school population.

Prevention Approaches

Linda Herbert, PhD, of Children’s National Health System in Washington
While school anti-bullying programs are well-established, the seriousness of food allergy incidents can be less understood. An allergy bullying study, which Shemesh co-authored, found several children reporting that harassment continued over months or years. If school staff seem dismissive that allergy bullying is arising, Shemesh suggests having the child’s doctor call the principal to explain the potentially serious health risks involved.

Once a student is a pre-teen or a teen, Herbert’s view is that not everyone in class needs to know about that student’s food allergies. Teachers can make general announcements about keeping specific foods out of classrooms without identifying the student. This may help to prevent them becoming a target.

Schools should create a culture of safety where students are encouraged to report any threatening behavior, says Shemesh – it’s not “tattling” if a classmate is being put at risk.

Bullying Online

With most kids toting around smartphones, popular apps like Snapchat have become the new domain for inappropriate messages, away from prying adults’ eyes. Some abusive messages can even be sent anonymously, making them hard to source.

Fortunately, teens can’t wave a peanut or a piece of cheese in your child’s face through the phone. If threats or teasing come online, Herbert says similar advice applies – walk away. Document the incident by taking screen captures of any messages, and note the time and date.

Kids should also report online threats to adults – some schools include online harassment in their bullying policies, even if it happens outside of school hours.

The Why of It

Why are children with food allergy an easy target? Unlike kids who appear ill with a disease like cancer, allergies are an invisible health problem until a child has a reaction.

“It’s silent. It’s not noticeable,” says Herbert. “And so it can be hard to convince people that it’s actually a significant concern.”

Downloadable Anti-Bullying Tips Handout
Young Adult’s Advice on What to Do if You’re Bullied
Asthma Stigma: Helping Teens Face Peer Pressure and Keep Disease Control