Is Your Child Being Bullied Because of a Food Allergy?

While food allergies are already a health concern for children, if your child does suffer with allergies their wellbeing may be under threat in other ways; bullying. This is according to a new study, published in the journal Paediatrics, which found that many children with food allergies may be bullied at school – sometimes with potentially dangerous threats to their physical health.


As a result of the study, which focused on 251 families at a New York City allergy clinic, the researchers found that about one-third of kids said they’d been bullied specifically because of their food allergy. More often than not, the bullying took place at school in the form of teasing. However, there were many cases in which bullies threatened their victims with the food to which they were allergic – waving it in front of them, throwing it at them or saying they would sneak it into their other food. Dr. Jay Lieberman, an assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Centre, in Memphis, who was not involved in the study, explained, ‘With food allergies, that kind of bullying does carry a theoretical physical risk.’


If a child with a food allergy eats the offensive food, their wellness can be affected by hives, swollen lips, stomach pain and even potentially life-threatening reactions in which the child can’t breathe and their blood pressure plummets. Fortunately, these severe reactions are rare, says lead researcher Dr. Eyal Shemesh, an associate professor of paediatrics and psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City, as parents of food-allergic kids are usually vigilant about avoiding the culprit foods. She explains, ‘What really affects these children’s lives is everything that surrounds the allergy – the food avoidance, the anxiety,’ and the bullying.


If other children have to avoid bringing peanut butter to school, for example, they may resent the child who’s allergic. Even in small amounts, peanuts can cause a serious allergic reaction, even through simple skin contact with a peanut. Therefore, both Shemesh and Lieberman note the importance of parents, schools and doctors being aware that food allergies can make kids a target for bullying. When the researchers asked the children about their quality of life – including their emotional wellbeing and how they were getting along at school – children who were bullied reported a lower quality of life than their food-allergic peers who were not targeted.


The interesting distinction was that, among the kids who were bullied, those who’d told their parents reported a better quality of life. As to why that was, the researchers remain unclear. Shemesh comments, ‘I don’t know if the parents did something about the bullying. I just know they knew about it.’ Whether the parents called the school or otherwise helped their child, or the kids just felt better after talking with their parents, Shemesh recommends that parents ask their children if other kids have ever bothered them about their food allergy. He also advises educating all children on how serious food allergies are.


Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general paediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, agrees that education about food allergies – for kids and adults – could help. ‘When it comes to food allergy, people often roll their eyes,’ Schuster says. ‘They think that kids are just trying to avoid a food they don’t like. And they may not understand that food allergies can be serious.’ He adds that parents of the children with food allergies also need to be aware of the signs of bullying, such as your child not wanting to go to school, appearing down, and complaining of chronic stomach aches or headaches.

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