Imagine being a child who lives with severe food allergies. Ingesting even the tiniest amount of the allergen (or having it touch your skin) can be enough to trigger anaphylaxis, which can kill you. Your condition is so severe that you must extremely vigilant about your food and you carry an epinephrine injector everywhere you go in case your inadvertently miss something and begin having trouble breathing or your throat starts to close. Now imagine fellow students bullying you because of your life-threatening allergies or having a fellow student force you to touch or eat the food that might kill you. It sounds far-fetched in view of the danger, but that’s a real life scenario for approximately 31.5% of children with food allergies, according to a 2013 study reported in Pediatrics.
These children are being singled out for harassment and are more than twice as likely to be bullied specifically because their food allergies.
Food Intolerance or Food Allergy?
5.9 million kids in the U. S. have food allergies. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “among children aged 0–17 years, the prevalence of food allergies increased from 3.4% in 1997–1999 to 5.1% in 2009–2011”. That means about 1 child out of every 13 in a given classroom has a food allergy.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, food allergies occur “when your body’s natural defenses overreact to exposure to a particular substance, treating it as an invader and sending out chemicals to defend against it.”
A true food allergy isn’t the same as the more common food intolerances we think of when we avoid a certain food because it will negatively affect our body (for example: lactose intolerance). Instead, food allergies trigger a person’s immune system, sending it into overdrive. This overreaction can bring on symptoms ranging from mild (like hives, itchiness, or gastric problems) all the way up to anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening.
Food allergy reactions can start in as little as two minutes and as long as two hours after eating or touching the food. The Mayo Clinic reports that the most common food allergy signs and symptoms include:
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
- Hives, itching or eczema
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
In some people, a food allergy can trigger a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This can cause life-threatening signs and symptoms, including:
- Constriction and tightening of the airways
- A swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat that makes it difficult to breathe
- Shock with a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness
Emergency treatment is critical for anaphylaxis. Untreated, anaphylaxis can cause a coma or even death.
Impact of Food Allergy Bullying
Often, kids think it is funny to tease and bully kids who have food allergies. This may be because they don’t really understand what can happen to children who have severe food allergies, although older kids and teens clearly have an idea. A 2018 New York Times article reported that a parent stated on Twitter that his son was “taunted by ‘friends’ with a PB & J sandwich,” who said, “‘let’s see if he dies.’” In other cases, “children with food allergies have had milk poured over them, peanuts waved in their faces, cake thrown at them, and peanut butter smeared on them.”
This harassment and stress can cause allergic children to fear school, leading to school refusal, and can make them depressed or cause them to isolate themselves socially. Parental involvement can help keep down the attacks, but children only report the harassment to their parents about 52.1% of the time. Additionally, teachers often make insensitive remarks or single-out and exclude children with food allergies from certain activities or school functions, further contributing to the child’s feelings of isolation and anxiety.
Increasingly, there have been legal consequences for food allergy bullying. In 2017, a 13 year-old U. K. boy was arrested for attempted murder after flicking a piece of cheese into a fellow student’s mouth, causing an anaphylactic reaction that led to the victim’s death. That same year in the U. S., a Michigan student with a peanut allergy (who was unconscious due to a hazing incident) was smeared in the face with peanut butter, resulting in an anaphylactic reaction. Thankfully, he later recovered, but the perpetrator pleaded guilty to assault and battery charges.
What Should Parents Do?
- Know what’s going on by staying involved at your child’s school.
- Know the signs of bullying: your child refuses to go to school, has stomach aches, stops talking about peers or friends, their grades may drop, or their sleep patterns may change.
- Teach your child what to do if they are being bullied – make sure they know they should tell the school nurse or their teacher. Also teach them to tell you. Studies show that children experience a reduction or cessation in bullying if a parent knows they are being bullied.
- Discuss your child’s allergies and their severity with the school principal and with your child’s teacher before your child starts the school year. Find out about the school’s anti-bullying policies and the procedures for handling an incident.
- Seek help from your child’s friends and classmates. They will often see things a teacher may not and can report any threats to your child’s teacher or warn your child of impending danger.
- Teach your children compassion and caring so they learn it’s not funny to bully others and that people can be hurt or can die from what might seem like a harmless prank.
Get Help for Bullying
It’s important to seek help as soon as possible if your child becomes the target of food allergy bullying. For more information about how a child psychologist at the Children’s Center can help your child stand up to bullying, contact the Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology and Related Services in Delray Beach, Florida or call us today at (561) 223-6568.