Last year, a 13 year old with a dairy allergy died after someone allegedly slipped cheese into his sandwich at lunch. He was rushed to the hospital and placed in intensive care where he remained until he suffered cardiac arrest.
80% of parents reported that their children with food allergies have been teased, excluded or harassed by their school mates as well as adults. In a 2010 study conducted by researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center, most kids felt their bullying had been due to their food allergies alone. Others reported that issues related to their food allergies (such as carrying medication, being set apart at lunch and receiving what appeared to be “special treatment”) were also factors in being taunted or harassed.
The psychological damages associated with bullying are heartbreaking and can last into adulthood: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harming behavior, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicidal thoughts. Couple these dark emotions and behaviors with the heightened state of anxiety and concerns over safety that those with food allergies already experience as well as the very REAL and severe dangers of anaphylaxis and we’re facing a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately.
Profile of a bully:
According to psychologists, bullies share a few common traits:
- Typically bullies act for several reasons including power and perceived popularity;
- Their actions are deliberate, repeated and often involve a verbal component; and
- Because they tend to lack prosocial skills, they see themselves and their actions positively. In essence, bullies don’t self-identify as bullies.
We’re all familiar with stories of generalized bullying. But what makes food allergy bullying different? A few things:
- Bullies who use food to target those with food allergies may not understand the very serious consequences their actions will have;
- Teens who speak about being harassed often report that it’s not just their peers doing the bullying. Parents and teachers who make it clear that those with food allergies are an inconvenience are sending a message that kids are receiving and taking personally;
- The line between a classmate jokingly waving a peanut at a child with food allergies without understanding the gravity and a bully who uses an allergen to threaten or harm a peer may seem clear. But the psychological implications and possibility of rapid and dangerous health outcomes of both situations can result in the victim feeling unsafe and more susceptible to harassment in the future.
Although many cases of bullying occur at school because of the close proximity of peers, bullying isn’t a problem that can – or should – be resolved entirely by schools themselves. Bullying is a communal problem and it’s one we all must work to prevent.
What can we do about food allergy bullying?
It all begins with education.
- Students need to be taught about food allergies formally. With two food allergic kids in every classroom, all students are exposed to this epidemic but few are equipped to truly understand it. Food allergies are mentioned in school but not rarely formally taught. For over a decade, I have taught preschool through 7th grade students lessons about food allergies; a lesson that includes a heavy dose of empathy which results in a stronger sense of fellowship. Empathy is one the key skills psychologists recommend schools and parents teach their children to thwart bullying and build community.
- But it’s not just the children who need a lesson in food allergies. So do adults. I recently gave a seminar to educators to raise their awareness of food allergies and help them protect their allergic students emotionally, socially, physically, and academically. Identifying food allergic reactions and understanding protocols, preventing cross-contamination in the classroom, lessons of inclusion and empathy, and the psychosocial issues (like anxiety and stress) that both food allergic students and their parents face have been immensely helpful to teachers who are trying to cater to the whole child. And they have seen these seminars reap great rewards in their schools.
- Parents of non-allergic children need to learn about food allergies to keep play dates safe and deepen their empathetic muscle so that they can impart those lessons to their own children. Occasionally (and not infrequently), we hear stories of parents who feel their children are entitled to bring whatever food they want into school regardless of the dangers they might pose on another child. These parents are missing the greater message – which is that we are a community; communities protect each other and THAT is what makes us all stronger. Not peanut butter sandwiches or cheese puffs.
At home, parents of food allergic children need to emphasize and practice lessons in self-advocacy and problem-solving. Kids with food allergies face their fear of reactions several times, every single day. Empowering them to speak up and stand firm to protect themselves and others is an invaluable skill – for them and for life.
Keep communication open between you and your child. Offer stories about when you were their age and include difficulties you may have faced and ways you overcome challenges. Get your children involved in figuring out how you should have handled your childhood issues. This reassures kids in many ways: First, it reminds them that they are not alone in their experiences. Second, it shows them, by example, different perspectives on common issues. And, it helps them self-identify as problem-solvers, instilling in them the confidence and perseverance they need to deal with sometimes complex obstacles.
Signs of Bullying:
Half of kids who have been bullied don’t talk about it with their parents or other trusted adult. Parents and teachers: please take note if you see these classic signs of food allergy bullying occurring to your child/student.
- food allergy reactions happening at school
- excuses to stay home
- physical signs (on the body, books, backpack, etc)
- falling grades/loss of interest at school
- behavioral/emotional changes (sadness, outbursts, excessive worry)
Bullying already in progress?
If you’re already dealing with a bully issue, there are a few extra things you may wish to do:
- Stay calm and collected. Reassure your child that you will help resolve this conflict. Approach the school first if that’s where the incidents are occurring.
- Practice language they can use to deal with bullies without retaliation (which could escalate things). Teach them to say, “STOP” and, ideally walk away.
- Identify trusted adults that your child can turn to if they have a problem at school (a teacher, a coach, administrator, the school nurse, etc). In addition to you, are there other adults in your child’s life that could help? It takes a village, now’s a great time to rely on that village.
- Children with food allergies are often protected legally under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, Title II and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The argument is that harassment and bullying prevents equal access to benefits that education provides. Section 504 covering disability harassment applies to children from elementary school through college and university.
There are a number of ways schools can reduce the possibility of dangerous food allergy bullying. Please contact me directly to discuss programs that work for each stage of education: email@example.com