Family Matters

Bullying over Food Allergies

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Kids can be cruel to one another for all sorts of reasons. Children who are too fat or too thin or those who have few friends are commonly targeted by schoolyard bullies, but new research finds that children with food allergies are also vulnerable. Nearly half of kids with food allergies say they’ve been bullied, and a third report that the bullying was food-related. In the most concerning cases, the kids said they were taunted by other kids who stuffed allergens into their mouth or threw food at them.

“These were acts that could actually be life-threatening,” says Dr. Eyal Shemesh, lead author and an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Even if it’s limited to teasing, that is still upsetting. If you are allergic and someone threatens to stuff a peanut in your mouth, they only need to do it once for you to be afraid.”

Shemesh and colleagues looked at 251 children ages 8 to 17 who went to Mount Sinai’s allergy clinic with a parent. Both children and parents answered detailed questions about bullying.

Not surprisingly, bullying was associated with more distress and dissatisfaction with life. Only about half the parents said they knew that their child had been bullied, but when parents were aware, children were not as miserable.

(MORE: Why Kids with Known Food Allergies Are Still at Risk)

“It could be that just the fact that you have someone who knows about it and supports you can help,” says Shemesh. “Or the parents may do something about it, which makes the child feel stronger.”

Parents of children with food allergies should regularly ask whether anyone is giving them a hard time about their allergy; doctors should inquire too. And schools should be vigilant as well.

Children with food allergies don’t look physically sick, so some people tend to dismiss the severity of their health concerns. “With cancer, people feel bad and want to protect them,” says Shemesh. “With food allergies, we see people look at a child and they look fine, so they dismiss the threat and figure the parents may be being too overprotective. That doesn’t happen with other illnesses. They are between a rock and a hard place in way that is not true for other medical illnesses.”

As many as 8% of U.S. kids have diagnosed food allergies, according to the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, making it likely that your child either has an allergy or has a classmate who does. Classrooms regularly ban tree nuts or eggs or dairy from shared school snacks because of myriad allergies. “It’s much more acceptable nowadays,” says Shemesh. “But these kids have a vulnerability that can be exploited. If someone wants to threaten them, they know how.”

MORE: Food Allergy Affects 1 in 12 American Kids, More Common in Minorities