Study Finds Parents Are Bullied About Food Allergies, Too

in Food Allergy, Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: November 13, 2020
Two women talking to each other and arguing.
Photo: Getty

Bullying is a well-known problem for many food-allergic kids. Research now shows that parents can be the targets of food allergy bullying, too.

In a study of 252 parents of school-aged children with food allergies, parents reported that about one in five kids had been bullied because of their food allergy.

However, the survey-based study also revealed that 17 percent of parents reported that they too were made fun of or teased in a hurtful way because of their concerns about their child’s food allergy.

“Food allergies are a lived experience for the whole family, not just the child,” said lead study author Dannielle Brown. She was fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Evanston, Illinois, when she conducted the research in 2020. 

Allergy parents reported bullying came from a variety of sources:
> Nearly 10 percent of parents of food-allergic children said the parent of another child made the hurtful comments.
> Nearly 10 percent reported bullying by another family member, and 7 percent by a friend.
> Six percent said in-laws had bullied, while 4 percent reported it from their own parents.
> 4 percent said their own spouse bullied.
> And 4 percent said a teacher or principal at their child’s school was at fault. 

Issues with Family, Other Parents

Dannielle Brown, MHS

The survey didn’t ask parents exactly what form of bullying – such as teasing, harassment or threats – their children experienced, or what comments other adults made that caused the emotional distress. But many parents of food-allergic kids have stories of family members who insist on serving nuts despite being told about the dangers to the allergic child, or who can’t seem to grasp the seriousness of food allergies even after it’s been explained to them.

Brown said previous surveys have shown that parents express wide support for hypothetical school policies that protect food-allergic children at school. But support drops steeply when parents realize those policies mean their own child won’t be able to bring PB&J sandwiches for lunch or cupcakes for their birthday.

“When things don’t affect you, you don’t have a big problem with it. But when your children can’t come to school with their normal lunch or snack, then you have a problem with it,” Brown told Allergic Living.

In the study, over half of respondents reported that some allergens are banned from their child’s school. In schools that did not allow peanuts, food allergy bullying was reported less often.

Stopping Allergy Bullying

Carrying medical devices such as epinephrine auto-injectors and being excluded from food-related activities may make children with food allergies the target of bullies, the researchers noted.

If a child is bullied, the study found parental intervention to stop it often helps. Almost 86 percent of parents with a child aged 4 to 15 who stepped in to try to stop the bullying reported that their actions were helpful. About 13 percent of parents spoke with their child, 7 percent spoke with the bully or the bully’s parent, 17 percent spoke with a teacher and 15 percent spoke with a principal or administrator.

Researchers did not find any differences between rates of food allergy bullying among Black children compared to white children, although Black kids were more than twice as likely to be bullied for any reason than white kids.

To combat food allergy bullying, Brown suggested peer-to-peer education to help fellow students understand the potential severity of allergic reactions. She also suggested that allergists screen children for bullying, since many kids do not disclose what’s happening to their parents.

“Bullying is very subjective, so if you ask, ‘Have you ever been bullied?’ the answer you get from one child to another may be different,” she said. “More open-ended questions like, ‘How does it make you feel when you have to sit at a table without your friends?’ might help allergists get a better picture of the lived experience of food allergic children at school.”

The research team included experts from six medical centers, including food allergy epidemiology experts Dr. Ruchi Gupta and Dr. Christopher Warren, affiliated with Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Related Reading:
Food Allergy Bullying: How to Spot It and Actions to Take
Downloadable Anti-Bullying Tips Handout
When Family Doesn’t Get Your Child’s Food Allergies
10 Tips to Help Family “Get” Allergies