Navigating food allergies as a kid is tough. You can’t eat the same foods that every other kid gets to eat at parties. You may have to sit at an “allergen-free” table during school lunch. Eating out at restaurants can be much more stressful than enjoyable. And then there’s the fear that eating the wrong thing could cause a frightening reaction.
As if all of that isn’t tough enough, kids with food allergies often have to deal with adversarial treatment from their peers. A new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology on October 5, 2021, shows that food allergy bullying is even more common than has previously been reported, and it takes many forms. It also shows that many parents are unaware that their child is being bullied.
Previous studies have shown that food allergy bullying affects one in five kids, but the latest research, which was conducted by Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C., showed that the problem affects one in three children.
Earlier studies have simply asked kids with food allergies whether or not they were bullied, but the Children’s National Hospital team presented kids with a multi-question assessment that covered all aspects of bullying. The idea behind the study was that kids may not always understand what constitutes bullying, but by fleshing out victimizing behaviors through specific questions, kids can give more accurate responses.
Over 120 children ages 9 to 15 were included in the study. Each of the children had been diagnosed with at least one food allergy. Results from the assessment showed 31% of kids reporting food allergy bullying as defined by these three criteria:
• Overt physical acts, including having an allergenic food waved in front of them, thrown at them, or purposely put into their food (experienced by 51%).
• Non-physical overt victimization, including teasing, criticism, threats, and intimidation (experienced by 66%).
• Relational bullying, including spreading rumors, ignoring, or excluding (experienced by 20%).
Most of the bullying was perpetrated by classmates in a school setting.
One parent per child was also included in the study. Only 12% of parents reported that they were aware that their child was bullied. Some parents said that they had also experienced bullying on account of their child’s food allergy.
In order to address bullying, you need to know it’s happening. This study helps define unacceptable behaviors so that kids can identify them more reliably and report them to adults.
It also helps caregivers open up a more effective dialog with their child so that they can better detect the bullying behaviors that may be affecting their child.
Advice for Parents
If your child has food allergies, be aware of the different types of bullying that can occur as defined by the bulleted behaviors above. Have open discussions with your child about peer interactions and define what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Try roleplaying scenarios so that your child knows how to explain their food allergy with confidence. You could also roleplay situations to teach them how to appropriately react to an antagonistic peer. Make sure your child has a plan for reporting bad behaviors to a trusted adult (teacher, parent, etc.) if food allergy bullying occurs.
Talk to your child’s teacher so that they fully understand the nature and scope of your child’s food allergies. Sometimes bullying comes from lack of awareness—peers may sniff out something “different” about your child and pick on them simply because they don’t understand their challenges. It may be appropriate to give a brief presentation to your child’s class about food allergies so that they can develop empathy for their situation.
Supporting Your Food Allergic Child
Kids with food allergies should never feel alone. It’s estimated that 1 in 13 children (that’s an average of two per school classroom) has food allergies, so your child should know that there’s an army of young people trying to navigate this growing challenge. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) is a fantastic hub of information and support. Check out their website to find a support group near you.
Treatment is also an option in a way that it has never been before. Sublingual immunotherapy has been shown to be a viable food allergy treatment program. It works on the same premise as allergy shots for pollen allergies. As your body is exposed to traces of triggering allergens over time, it becomes desensitized to them and stops overreacting to them. With sublingual immunotherapy, antigen is dispensed under the tongue, exposing your body to gradually increasing amounts of food proteins. The body can then learn to “make peace” with these proteins so that you can eat more of the foods that you love without fear of irritating and even dangerous reactions. Talk to your sublingual immunotherapy doctor for more information.