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

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: May 15, 2018

Photo: Getty
It’s the kind of story that leaves parents of food-allergic children baffled and nervous – a schoolyard bully waving an offending snack in a vulnerable kid’s face.

Over the past years, researchers have begun to look more closely at food allergy bullying after hearing stories like this from children with food allergies and their parents. American and Canadian studies have found that about one-third of food-allergic kids are bullied directly because of their allergy.

Definitions of bullying vary, but children say they’ve been taunted, teased, threatened and, in some cases, had life-threatening allergens thrust in their faces, or even slipped into their food surreptitiously. It was mostly likely to happen at school, with classmates as the perpetrators – although, school staff were sometimes at fault. And, researchers found many parents didn’t know the bullying had taken place.

Families may want to ready themselves to counter allergy bullying, in the event their child is targeted, says Dr. Linda Herbert, a psychologist at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., and director of the allergy psychology program.

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 psychology 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 Find Out if Your Child is Being Bullied

Herbert says parents should first set the stage for open communication before trouble arises. Talk about your own day, and ask your child open-ended questions about their experiences and feelings. That way, it will be easier to notice a change in the child’s attitude or behavior. Sudden anxiety about going to school, or the child changing who she or he eats lunch with could be a sign something is awry.

Dr. Eyal Shemesh of Mount Sinai in New York
Teenagers can be less forthcoming to their parents about taunting or threats. If you are concerned and your kid seems to be tight-lipped, your teen’s friends or their parents could be sources of information about what’s going on at school.

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

In his New York clinic, Dr. Eyal Shemesh, Mount Sinai pediatrician and psychiatrist, asks all his patients with allergies specific questions about their experiences with other children – “Does anyone give you a hard time about your allergies? Who did you tell?” Gathering details are an important step toward tackling the problem.

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 it happen, who was present, and what did they do or say? Did any adults witness this?
  2. If physically threatened with an allergy-causing food, a child should be taught to run away, and tell an adult immediately, says Shemesh. Otherwise the child could be forced to consume something dangerous to them.
  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 problem persists, validate your child’s emotions – say it’s normal to feel sad and angry and 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 about the incident, contact the school. In the event of a serious situation, do so immediately. When parents approach school principal or vice-principal about an incident, Herbert says to ask for a copy of the bullying policy. Provide the specifics of the incident, and if there are any related materials, such as photos or texts from a bully, you can provide those too.

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 actions taken will depend on the seriousness of the incident. Sometimes there are just discussions to educate the bully about the seriousness of putting a classmate in danger, in more concerning situations there are suspensions. In successful anti-bullying programs, the emphasis is 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
Once a student is a pre-teen or a teen, Herbert notes that not everyone in class needs to know each child’s allergies. Teachers can make general announcements about keeping specific foods out of classrooms without identifying the student, which may help prevent them from becoming a target.

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

While anti-bullying programs in general are well-established, the seriousness of food allergy incidents can be less understood. A follow-up study of children canvassed for food allergy bullying found some reported the harassment continued for months or years. In cases where the school or adult in charge is unwilling to step in, Shemesh, as an expert on the subject, has called on behalf of families to explain the risks.

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.”

Food Allergy Bullying: The Stakes Are High