A Third Of Kids With Food Allergies Bullied: What Grown-Ups Can Do

(H. Zell/Wikimedia Commons)

(H. Zell/Wikimedia Commons)

The journal “Pediatrics” reports today that nearly one third of children with food allergies are bullied for it. From the press release:

Researchers surveyed 251 parent and child pairs to see if they have experienced bullying related to their food allergies. The results show that 31.5 percent of these children report being bullied, and threats frequently involved food. Children who report being bullied, and their parents, had higher stress levels and lower quality of life. Of those surveyed, approximately half the parents reported being aware of bullying.

The study confirms earlier findings that kids — and adults — can be real jerks about allergies. We posted a similar study in 2010 reporting that “approximately 35 percent of children with food allergies over age five have experienced bullying, teasing, or harassment as a result of their allergies. Of those, the study says, 86 percent experienced repeated episodes, with classmates being the most common perpetrators. But beyond that, more than 20 percent reported harassment or teasing from teachers and other school staff, according to the findings published in the medical journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.”

I spoke today with Dr. Mark Schuster of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, co-author of an accompanying editorial in Pediatrics whose title begins, “Did the Ugly Duckling Have PTSD?” Our conversation, lightly edited:

You discuss the important role that parents and other adults can play in helping to stop bullying. How exactly should we talk to our kids who don’t have allergies about the kids who do?

The first thing is for parents to take allergies seriously. It’s very easy for parents to just react with annoyance that they can’t send their kid to school with a peanut butter sandwich. It’s understandable why parents feel constrained by restrictions due to allergies, but if their child doesn’t have an allergy they often don’t understand just how serious it can be. Some kids really can go into anaphylactic shock from touching someone else’s peanut butter cookie and die at school.

So it’s important for parents of kids who do not have allergies to be respectful of the seriousness of a child who does have an allergy. A parent might try asking a child without an allergy: “What is your favorite food? How would it feel if you could never eat that food ever again? And if you did eat that food, it would kill you?”

Part of it is just to build empathy. And a lot of it is role modeling. If parents are dismissive and say, ‘It’s no big deal’ or ‘Why should I have to change because of some other family’s problem?’ then they’re sending a message to their child that is stigmatizing of a kid with allergies.

And should parents try to explain the biology at all?

Well, they don’t have to get into the immunology, but they can explain that there’s a biological reaction in the child’s body that makes it very dangerous for the child to eat, and sometimes even touch, the specific food.

One of the things going on is that food allergies have been on the rise, and so many parents are thinking back to when they were kids and allergies were rare and not as big a deal. And now they are more common, so it’s important to educate parents. Any parent of a kid who has a food allergy knows what it’s like to have other people minimize it. Schools can really help to educate both parents and kids on this topic.

Could you sum up what we know about the health consequences of bullying??

Bullying can have serious health consequences. Obviously it can have physical consequences if a child is beaten up; it can also have serious emotional and psychological effects: It can make a kid feel withdrawn; it can lead to depression; it can create anxiety and stress. There are kids who have committed suicide following being bullied, particularly when it’s something that reaches to their core identity, like their sexual orientation. Kids who’ve been bullied can experience psychological effects that last into adulthood.

Another article just out in “Pediatrics” concerns bullying about weight. You write: “A clinician who is trying to motivate a child to lose weight might use language, tone, and facial expressions that are undermining, scolding, and even bullying.” What does that look like? How can a parent watch out for it and what’s the correct response?

Parents may do it as well: Calling a kid fat, any suggestion from a parent that they’re embarrassed by the kid. And some of this can be well-intentioned. The parent can be feeling desperate to try to help their kid maintain a weight that isn’t at an unhealthy level or what they perceive to be an unhealthy level. So they may be trying everything they can think of, and may not realize that calling their child names and mocking their child is not the way to go about getting their child to eat healthier, put away the video games, and be more physically active. And even if it works, the price they’re paying with their child’s psychological health is probably a high one, particularly when it’s the parent more than anybody who should be serving as the child’s safe haven.

And what do pediatricians do wrong?

It’s the same approach: A pediatrician might try to motivate a child to exercise more and change her diet by using epithets that are mocking or by suggesting that she won’t have friends if she’s fat or she’ll never get a date. In reality, I think that would be the rare pediatrician who would do this, but there are examples of all sorts of adults who are demeaning of kids.

It’s such a minefield, to get across the weight message without causing damage…

It is a challenge particularly when you’re trying to partner with the parent but look out for the best interests of the child. So when a parent is insulting their child, a pediatrician who’s trying to be supportive of the parent but also of the child needs to be careful not to go too far in speaking the language of the parent. Bonding with the parent by saying, ‘Yes, I realize this might be so hard and embarrassing’ is trying to be supportive of the parent but it’s going to be very hurtful to the child. The kid will pick up the subtleties of the physician’s word choice, tone and facial expression, which is why we teach our students and residents about the importance of nonverbal communication.

Say you’re the parent of a kid who’s not overweight, and talking to them about a kid in their class who is. On the one hand, people get overweight by eating too much; on the other hand, you want to say that it isn’t so-and-so’s fault…

I think what a parent has to do is create an environment where their child learns to respect other people in general and recognize that there is a lot of diversity in the world and not everyone is like them. And yes, people can typically take steps to be less obese. They can exercise, they can eat a certain way, but it’s also the case that people do probably have sort of a range of a regular weight for them, and some people are larger than others. Being physically fit is what’s most important, regardless of one’s size. And certainly in the case of a child, a child doesn’t have complete control over what he eats or how much he exercises. There’s a lot of influence that comes from the family, school, community and media.

If the parent is someone who goes to their high school reunion and comes home laughing about how the prom queen is now super-heavy, the kid hears that and learns it’s okay to laugh about someone who is heavy, and then that gets transmitted to how he treats other kids at school. So a lot of it is how the parents view others. It’s about teaching empathy and helping one’s child think about things they might be embarrassed about, and things they’re not perfect at, and how it would feel if someone were to make fun of them.

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  • lop

    I discovered at age ~35 that I have a food allergy (which explained many a severely upset stomach and other digestive problems…). I have been shocked at how few people take this seriously. Luckily for me, it is unlikely, at least up to now, that I will go into shock, but I will be very ill and I have definitely observed my allergy symptoms progressing in severity, so clearly avoidance is necessary, and yet people do not believe me. I feel terrible for those who could go into shock, because for me the disbelief could result in a serious inconvenience, but for others it could result in death. Not a laughing matter,

  • crw

    Essential information not included in this report:

    1. In the entire population of kids, not just those with food allergies, what percentage are bullied? Is it about 31.5%? Is it more? Is it less? Without knowing this, we can’t tell if kids with food allergies are being bullied more, or perhaps less, than kids without food allergies.

    2. Of kids who are bullied regardless of whether they have food allergies, how many are bullied about food?

    From my experience being a kid (neither bullied nor a bullier, but an observer), many kids are bullied and food is a common element in bullying. I’m not saying this is right, but your article implies that kids with food allergies are bullied, and bullied about food, more than the non-allergic kids. Without sufficient data, this is merely an implication that is not backed up by fact.

  • Nathan Merrill


    1) Many kids are bullied; these numbers are not out of the ordinary for bullying experiences.

    2) Soft science is soft science; believing anything psychologists say without being very careful about methodology is always a mistake.

    Are kids bullied about this? Yes. But kids are bullied about -everything-. It happens. You have to learn to deal with it. I was bullied when I was a kid, and I learned how to cope.

    As for restrictions, frankly, I think they’re ridiculous. I’m sorry, but peanut butter is a common food item; if your child dies from touching the same doorknob as a kid who ate a peanut butter sandwich, then it is just natural selection doing its work. If mere peripheral exposure to a food item is deadly to you, then it is unreasonable to restrict everyone else’s rights – and by failing to select against such deleterious genes in the gene pool we’re helping spread disease amongst mankind.

    Being fat is always the fault of the person who is fat unless they are bedridden. The weight issue is not a minefield; you need to grow a thick enough skin to deal with society. People will say mean things about you, and if you are incapable of dealing with it, then you are incapable of dealing with society in general.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Galatha/1661875814 Joe Galatha

      I find your response particularly disgusting. So the whole world is measured by your yardstick, and you assume all yardsticks are the same?

      You’re precisely the reason kids turn into monsters. You have decided for someone else what their pain is allowed to feel like. That’s a dangerous game, for one – but it’s in human. That you can be so cavalier – oh, ,well YOU survived bullying, and everyone’s circumstances are always equal by degrees and by experience, so if you can do it, anyone can.

      You’ve lived all the experiences, felt all the feelings, have encoutered the complete scope of the human experience, and therefore you know what other people can, and should – according to your comment – be able to handle.

      quite disgusting. Naive, arrogant, and stupid, given that you have no control over other people’s actions (either as bully or as victim) that you claim to have such enormous depth of understanding.

      Clearly, you have none at all.

      • John Mclaren

        Very important kids engage in some petty conflicts, make mistakes and suffer reasonable consequences, and in the process mature, learn how to interact and get along. People either learn these crucial lessons as children relatively harmlessly, or they may play them out as adults winding up in prison or worse. This applies both to would be bullies and would be victims. Quietly monitoring these interactions from a certain distance is key, always being ready to step in. It’s about balance, but also preparing children for the real world.

        • Tim Simms

          John: Please tell me about this “real world” for which children must be prepared. I suspect that I would not want to live in it.

    • yourFault

      How wonderful that you are so wise.

      Please call my adult 350lb daughter and tell her that her pituitary tumor (a prolactinoma) is her fault. Perhaps you could even perform surgery for her which doesn’t carry possible complications of stroke, bleeding out, or blindness.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001224409264 Smail Buzzby

        I am sorry that your daughter is overweight and cannot help it. Used to be that EVERYONE who was very heavy had a pituitary gland problem, remember? But now we have a nation of lazy fatasses and your daughter is the exception and not the rule. Or have you not opened the door and waded out in to the bovine masses that populate much of our country?
        The point was about bullying, not about you specifically.

    • Tim Simms

      Nathan, if you are serious about letting children with allergies die so other kids can eat peanut butter sandwiches, you have some very serious problems. Please seek help immediately.

    • Deitra Pawley

      Okay seriously I hate adults who say “Oh, I was bullied no big deal herdy her her” also my great niece has allergies, I worry for her when she starts school. People die from going into anaphaletic shock, my great niece has been rushed to the hospital because she ate a reeses pieces she was only 2 and didn’t know what it was.Nathan you are probably the type of person who stands by watching someone get bullied

      • Nathan Merrill

        If you can’t cope with being bullied, you have a serious problem interacting with people. Learning to deal with jerks is an important life skill and a major part of basic human interaction.

        Yes, people do die for these reasons. Guess what? Too bad, so sad. People die from all sorts of things. Trying to ban staple foods because of your defective genetic material is dumb. Peanuts are used in a wide variety of food products. Peanut butter is a good protein source which is considerably cheaper than meat is.

        If you are so severely allergic to food that mere peripheral exposure will kill you, then you are going to die anyway. There’s a difference between reasonable caution (telling people that you have a food allergy and avoiding eating said food) and “someone touched this doorknob after eating a sandwich, I am going to die now”. The former is reasonable, the latter is not.

        • Deitra Pawley

          Just because you survived bullying you think everyone is like you , (personally I have never been bullied before).Good for you -sarcasm- go tell that to the mother of a girl who hung herself because she was being bullied mercilessly or the boy who brought a gun to school because adults said the same thing you are saying .

          Food allergies are a very serious matter , a nineteen year old was charged with assault for smearing peanut butter on a classmate he knew was allergic to the stuff.

          I love reeses peanut butter cups and peanut butter m&ms, but I only get them when I know my great niece will not be around to be exposed to them .Then I throw the trash in the outside trash and thoroughly wash my hands and face just in case they do come over unexpectedly.

          • Nathan Merrill

            No one hangs themselves because they are bullied. People hang themselves because they can’t cope. There is a fundamental difference here.

            If you kill yourself, it is YOUR fault; your fault, and no one else’s. I encourage people not to kill themselves, and have counselled people who were engaged in self-harm and who were contemplating suicide in the past. Suicide is weakness, pure and simple, and it is YOU, yourself, who is responsible for yourself – no one else. You have to recognize that YOU are what makes you you. You cannot let others dictate your life to you.

            And people who bring guns to school are messed up in the head, and very often are bullies themselves. Again, no one else is to blame for YOUR actions.

            Your lack of people taking personal responsibility is appalling. And it is what causes people to commit suicide. If you recognize that YOU are yourself fully responsible for your own actions, and that YOU make the difference, not anyone else, it helps a lot. That is the essence of self-esteem.

            Now, food allergies ARE a very serious matter. You SHOULD warn people about them. And if someone takes a substance you are allergic to and deliberately gives it to you, then they are committing assault, if not attempted murder.

            However, if someone eats a peanut butter sandwich, that isn’t their problem.

            It is RESPONSIBLE to try to avoid deliberately making contact with someone who has a food allergy with said food, but banning foods is just stupid. If you’re reasonably careful, the person will be fine.