“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.
Food Allergy Research & Education says the Be a PAL: Protect A Life education program has useful information for children about being helpful to those with food allergies. Pacers has a similar list for adults. The most helpful advice suggests:
Don’t Share Your Food with Friends Who Have Food Allergies
Remember some of the foods you enjoy can hurt others. Never make fun of a child who has issues with certain foods. If you see someone teasing another student with allergies tell an adult.
Wash Hands after Eating
After you eat, pieces of food may still be on your hands. Be sure you’re not exposing others by keeping clean hands.
Help Your Friends and Classmates Have Fun Together
You don’t have to eat to have fun. Consider creative activities like puzzles, board games or dancing so everyone can be included in the fun.
If a Friend with a Food Allergy Feels Sick, Get Help Right Away
Adults are often better prepared to deal with unexpected food issues. If a friend is having trouble (breathing or sickness) let an adult you trust know right away. If no adult is around, Call 911.
As an adult, you have to act as an ambassador for children in your care. Asking question is the only way to know what ingredients are in food and protect those with allergies. Also, with children so unlikely to report bullying, regularly ask if everything is OK at school.
Don’t Be a Bystander
More than half of bullying incidents end when a peer intervenes. If your children bring it to your attention that a child at school is being bullied, encourage them to tell a school authority figure, or do it yourself. While it can be dangerous for them to intervene directly, it is equally important that they do not watch as the mistreatment of any student unfolds.
Educate Children on Standing up for Themselves
Most children who report having been bullied feel too helpless to stand up for themselves while the bullying takes place. It is important that parents and guardians educate children that no one deserves to experience bullying and that they must stand up for themselves even when it’s hard.
Avoiding the food is the only way to prevent a reaction. Many like Cate’s son have to sit isolated from their friends when the triggering allergen is present. For reasons like isolation, children with food allergies are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety.
Ambreia is a freelance writer who loves all things parenting, social justice and psychology.