Nearly 1 in 3 Children With Food Allergies Say They've Been Bullied Because of Their Allergies

A recent study found that nearly one in three young people with food allergies are bullied because of their allergy.

Learn more about findings from this study, plus tips for helping your child recognize and respond to food allergy bullying.

Food allergies can have a significant impact on children's and teens' quality of life. Eating even a small amount of food that they're allergic to could cause them to develop an allergic reaction. And at any time, an allergic reaction could become severe or even life-threatening.

As they must avoid certain foods so they don't experience an allergic reaction, this can also cause young people with food allergies to miss out on social activities or feel excluded.

And unfortunately, many children and teens with food allergies are bullied.

A recent study found that nearly one in three young people with food allergies experience some form of bullying because of their allergy.

Today, we'll examine more findings from this study. Plus, we'll cover tips for helping your child recognize and respond to food allergy bullying.

Food Allergy Bullying – The 2021 Survey

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology surveyed 121 youth with food allergies (ages 9-15) and 121 caregivers (one caregiver of each of the youth).

All the youth had a diagnosed allergy to at least one of the eight top food allergens (peanuts, eggs, cow's milk, soy, wheat, tree nuts, finned fish or shellfish).

Types Of Food Allergy Bullying Experienced

The 2021 study asked several questions about the type and extent of food allergy-related bullying that youth have had to endure.

Here are some of the most significant findings:

  • When the youth were asked "Have you been bullied, teased, or harassed about your food allergy?" as a simple yes or no question, only 17% of the youth said "yes."
  • But when they were given a list and asked to check off any different type of bullying they've experienced because of their food allergy, 31% reported they experienced at least one bullying behavior.

So, nearly one in three of the youth (41 out of 121) experienced some form of bullying because of their allergy.

Out of these 41 youth:

  • 51% reported experiencing physical bullying, such as:
    • Having a food with their allergen thrown at them
    • Someone waving their allergen in their face
    • Their allergen purposely being put in their food
  • 66% reported experiencing verbal bullying, including:
    • Being teased about their allergy
    • Being criticized because of their allergy
    • Being verbally threatened or intimidated because of their allergy
  • 20% experienced social bullying related to their allergy, such as:
    • Purposeful exclusion due to their allergy
    • Being ignored due to their allergy
    • Rumors spread at their expense
    • Others speaking behind their back

The majority of food allergy-related bullying happened at school. The people who started the bullying were often, but not limited to, other students at the school (including classmates).

Parents' And Caregivers' Perceptions of Food Allergy Bullying

Surprisingly, only 12% of parents and caregivers said they were aware of any food allergy bullying that their child experienced – even though 31% of youth experienced food allergy-related bullying.

Out of that 12% group, 93% of caregivers said their child told them about the bullying.

Some caregivers have even experienced teasing or bullying directly, because they were concerned about their child's food allergy.

What Do These Findings Mean?

Food allergy-related bullying is especially serious because it could put your child in danger.

Any bullying that directly involves the food can be especially dangerous, as this could cause an allergic reaction if the food enters your child's mouth.

And regardless of the type, this bullying may cause children to not tell others about their allergies, when others' knowledge of these allergies is key to keeping them safe.

Plus, experiencing food allergy-related bullying can make youth feel unsafe at school (and in other environments with peers).

But as the study's findings show, many parents have no idea that this bullying is even happening, especially if their child doesn't want to share that it happened.

As study author Linda Herbert, Ph.D (director of the Psychosocial Clinical and Research Program, Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children's National Hospital) shared with Science Daily, "Food allergy-related bullying can have a negative impact on a child's quality of life. [But] by using a more comprehensive assessment, we found that…parents may be in the dark about it. It's important to find ways for children to open up about food allergy-related bullying."

One way to encourage openness is to ask specific questions about your child's day, especially parts of the day where food is involved (or may be involved). For example, ask your child about lunch, recess, class parties, or events where food is served.

Asking about these events means you're more likely to learn about bullying if it does occur.

Taking Action Against Food Allergy Bullying

How to empower your child – and their school – to stop food allergy bullying? Follow these tips:

Equip your child to recognize bullying and respond to it.

  • Remind your child of different forms that bullying may take (so they can recognize bullying behaviors).
  • Emphasize that bullying is not acceptable – they shouldn't have to keep enduring the bullying.
  • Teach them how to respond to bullying: tell them to confidently say "Stop!" or "Leave me alone!" and walk away, then tell a teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult.
  • Reassure your child that they can (and should!) tell you when they're bullied, because you're here to listen and help.

Make sure that your school has a proactive and consistent anti-bullying program.

  • This means an environment where bullying incidents are always responded to as soon as possible.

Ask teachers, school staff, or activity staff to cover food allergies in their anti-bullying program.

  • Topics they should cover include what food allergies involve, why food allergies are serious and can be life-threatening, how to recognize when someone is bullied because of a food allergy, how to report that bullying, and how to create a safe environment for peers with food allergies.
  • Looking for a starting point? Several food allergy organizations have ready-made anti-bullying resources that your school can use. Check out the No Appetite For Bullying website, and FARE’S Be A PAL program.

Encourage an inclusive environment at school and other activities, where children are not left out of activities, excluded, or made to feel different because of their allergy.

If your child tells you they are being bullied:

  • Calmly reassure your child that you’re here to help.
  • Thank your child for telling you about the bullying.
  • Immediately talk to your child’s teacher and school administrators about the bullying. (Or, talk to adults responsible for your child, if this happened in an out of school setting.)
  • Ensure the adults understand how serious food allergy bullying is, because of the potentially life-threatening nature of allergic reactions.
  • Don’t directly confront anyone who bullied your child.

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