“He didn’t understand why people would be so mean about something that could kill him,” recalled Cate. Her son M (name withheld), has severe peanut allergies, and like many, has experienced bullying related to his allergy.
It is believed up to 77 percent of children report experiencing some level of bullying. Bullying is, “when someone is being hurt either by words or actions on purpose, usually more than once, feels bad because of it, and has a hard time stopping what is happening to them,” according to Pacers.
While it is difficult to conduct the longitudinal studies necessary to track bullying, it is known that nearly 24 percent of children experience some form of chronic harassment. In the long term, bullying can result in lowered academic performance, mental health issues and, in extreme situations, suicide. But while all children are vulnerable, there are certain populations at an increased risk. For example, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to experience mistreatment. In an attempt to combat this problem, legal protection exists for disabled students who are experiencing mistreatment. But what about invisible disabilities, like food allergies (yes, it’s considered a disability)?
According to a 2013 study, more than one-third of children and teens with food allergies (ages 8-17) reported being bullied specifically for their food allergies—usually by classmates.
All bullying is dangerous, but in many cases, like the one for Cate’s son, it can become a matter of life or death.
For M, those numbers became reality when his food allergies made him the target of chronic bullying.
“It started in [kindergarten],” said Cate. “M made a face at another student, who then threw his [peanut butter and jelly sandwich] at M. It made him cry, because just the year before, he’d spent Thanksgiving night in the ER after accidentally being exposed. He was well aware how dangerous it was.”
In the U.S., a food allergy sends someone to the Emergency Room every three minutes. The chances of been admitted due to an allergic reaction to food increases when classmates weaponize food.
“In fourth grade, M was a long-term target of the class bully. After weeks of taunting him about his freckles, his shoes or his asthma making play difficult, the kid started threatening to smear peanut butter on him so that he could die. And laughed. M reported it, but it was ignored. It happened again the next day, and he came home in tears.”
Though often overlooked, allergies and asthma are disabilities and are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Is it possible that more isn’t being done to protect this vulnerable population because so few are aware of its existence? Let explore the numbers.
There are over 5.9 million children in the U. S living with food allergies, many of whom are targeted by bullies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. Nearly 40 percent of children with food allergies experience severe or life-threatening reactions. So, you really don’t want to mess with them.
Food allergy bullying disrupts a child’s ability to feel safe to perform basic tasks necessary to their health and well-being, including eating. It can present itself in many ways, from relentless teasing to the dangerous forced feeding attempts. The signs of a child having a food reaction can often mimic the human body’s response to poisoning. In severe incidents, the child can go into anaphylactic shock or die. Food, along with medications and insect stings, are the most frequent allergies associated with anaphylaxis, defined as a “severe reaction that happens when an over-release of chemicals puts the person into shock. In some cases a biphasic, or second anaphylactic reaction, can occur as long as 12 hours after the initial reaction,” by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can be as mild as having difficulty breathing, and as severe as cardiac arrest.