As the incidence of food allergies continues to grow in American kids, a related trend has appeared: food allergy bullying. It's certainly tough enough being a kid, and a kid with food allergies, without having to contend with bullying as well. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), however, one third of kids with food allergies experience bullying because of their food allergies. Worse still, an estimated half of these incidents go unreported to parents, who are therefore often unaware of the problem, which means kids continue to be bullied.
Where Can I Learn More About Food Allergy Bullying?
When your child has food allergies, it's a serious issue and one that needs to be made apparent not only to the adults and caregivers around your child, but also to other kids so that everyone can work together to help prevent reactions and to respond appropriately if one does occur. Unfortunately, in the hands of a bully, allergy information is a weapon, a dangerous one that can result in serious harm to your child. Some bullies see food allergies as an easily identifiable difference they can use to ostracize, belittle, and tease other children through exclusionary behavior, name calling, and teasing. Others may take things a step further and actually use a child’s allergen as a weapon by contaminating the child’s classroom, seating area, or food.
For parents, the idea of giving a potential bully information that could harm our children is unthinkable, and yet we cannot keep food allergies a secret, as that is just as likely to result in a serious emergency. Thankfully, FARE has published a free handout including six helpful, simple tips for “Preventing and Addressing Food Allergy Bullying,” which you can download here. They’ve also launched a national awareness campaign to combat food allergy bullying, starting with their It’s Not A Joke campaign, where you can find lots of pro-active steps you can take to help educate and inform those around your child. On this page, there are also links to informative sites about 504 Plans and your child’s legally protected rights at school. FARE also has a terrific page all about managing food allergies at summer camp (not a bullying resource, but a great one for parents sending kids with allergies off for some summer fun!).
How Can I Protect My Child?
If your child has food allergies, there are a few steps you can take to help protect him or her from bullies:
1. Give him a say: Kids are notorious for wanting to fit in, and having allergies is something for which they really don’t want to stand out. Let your child shop for an appropriate medical ID necklace or bracelet with you rather than choosing one and insisting s/he wear it. When kids have a say in this process, our customers report that their children are much more likely to wear their medical alert jewelry, keep it on, and even use it as an ice breaker to discuss their allergies in a positive manner with classmates. When they feel “tagged” with an “uncool” medical ID bracelet they don’t like, they’re more likely be teased because of it and/or remove it, which of course, is far more dangerous than most kids realize.
2. Talk about bullying: Open the dialog with your child and role play to practice handling any negative comments or questions your child may encounter. Discuss how to handle bullying situations and where to go for help. Reassure your child that you will back him or her up if bullying happens, and ask for your child’s teacher, nurse, and school administrators to echo this sentiment.
3. Practice: Just as many parents help their children practice how to decline if they’re offered drugs or alcohol by peers, it’s important to practice declining foods so your child feels comfortable saying, “No thanks” and explaining if need be.
4. Get the school on board: Children with food allergies may need 504 Plans to help manage their allergies at school. Having a plan in place helps make things simpler, which is less stressful for your child. The less stress s/he feels over food allergies, the less worried s/he will likely be about having a reaction, and that confidence is an outstanding defense against bullies, who tend to pick on those they perceive as weaker. Additionally, ask for your child’s school to put allergy-awareness programs into place, which normalizes food allergies by educating everyone and helps prevent bullying by destigmatizing the issue and making bullying consequences very clear to those who might consider it.
Does your child have food allergies? How do you deal with the potential (or reality) of food allergy bullying? What steps have you found to be most effective? We want to hear from you!