Another Bummer for Kids With Food Allergies: Bullying and Harassment

Thought peanuts were your kid's greatest enemy? Peers and teachers may be doing damage, too.
Kids with food allergies face harassment and bullying for their condition, new study says. (Smneedham/FoodPix/Getty Images)
Nov 6, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

If you're a parent whose kid has a peanut allergy, you've probably gotten used to being the peanut police. Yes, it really does matter if someone eats trail mix next to your kid on the plane. Yes, even the smallest dab of peanut butter can end in an emergency room visit. But a new study shows that, as a kid with an allergy, your child faces more than just a life-threatening condition: He's also more susceptible to bullying.

The study, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, says that kids with food allergies face teasing and bullying about their condition, reports U.S. News. The 2010 survey gathered information from more than 350 parents of food-allergic kids and learned that 35 percent of kids ages five years and older were victims of bullying directly related to their allergy. Eighty-six percent of those kids experience bullying more than once.

Harassment ranged from taunts and teasing to bullies physically touching food-allergic kids with a known allergen. More than half of those surveyed reported physical altercations, where bullies touched kids with their allergen, threw the allergen at them, or intentionally contaminated the food-allergic child's meal with their allergen.

U.S. News reports that the intent of the bullying—was it purposely malicious, or just based on lack of understanding?—isn't known. But reports from food allergy experts seems to reflect a scary combination of both: Bullies have smeared peanut butter on the backpacks of kids with peanut allergies and sprayed milk in the face of children with dairy allergies. That type of behavior seems to suggest that bullies have a misconceived idea that kids with allergies are "faking it" or need to just toughen up.

Maria Acebal, CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, told U.S. News that awareness is part of the issue, but in her field, she's also seen "the most pernicious kind" of teasing—kids who know their bullying could harm food-allergic kids and do it anyway.

Kids with any differences are easy targets for bullying, and food-allergic kids are no exception. Allergy experts say that societal attitudes don't help: People don't seem to realize that trace amounts of exposure to an allergen can be deadly. Acebal told U.S. News that food allergies aren't taken as seriously as other disabilities or food-related issues like diabetes, which have reached a level of awareness that makes those conditions unacceptable targets for bullying. Currently, about eight percent of U.S. children have at least one food allergy; many have multiple food allergies.

Acebal was not just talking about kids, though: More than 20 percent of the bullying incidents involved teachers and school staff harassing students with allergies.

School, then, is both a landmine for food-allergic kids and a site with great potential to protect them. Administrators, teachers, and principals play an instrumental role in increasing awareness of the severity of allergic reactions. By taking the issue of food allergies seriously, they can help kids understand allergies in the same way they understand other physical ailments.

Parents can also look for warning signs of distress in their food-allergic kids. Kids who are being bullied may show signs of depression or withdrawal, might not want to attend school, or might experience different sleeping and eating habits. Another red flag is a child returning home with a full lunch box.

To protect kids with allergies, we need to take the issue seriously. It would be shocking to learn that a school was tolerating harassment of, for example, a kid in a wheelchair. "The same needs to happen for food allergies," Acebal told U.S. News.

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