Allergies can be life-threatening – and a target for bullying. What to do if your kid is a victim.
Nearly one-third of 251 food allergic children surveyed in a 2011 study reported being bullied because of their allergies.
By Anna Medaris Miller Jan. 12, 2015 | 3:21 p.m. EST+ More
As a first-grader, Jeremy Francoeur didn’t want to go to school, and his mom didn’t know why.
When she asked, he told her about a game his classmates made up called “allergen tag.” The premise? Each kid pretended to be a food Jeremy is allergic to – an egg, a peanut or a shell fish, for example – and tried to tag him.
“If he touched them, they would cough and say, ‘OK, you’re dead, you’re out,’” says Jeremy's mom, Laurel Francoeur, an attorney in Woburn, Massachusetts, who focuses on food allergy advocacy. “He just felt very alienated from that.”
That wasn’t all. One classmate would sometimes lick Jeremy's sandwich. Another would throw it away. Both pranks left him hungry, since he couldn’t eat the school’s food. Even in middle school, a peer called Jeremy, now 14, a hypochondriac because he said he couldn’t eat the food at a school event. In reality, if he ate it, he could go into anaphylactic shock, a potentially-life threatening reaction usually involving swelling, hives and low blood pressure.
“When people hear ‘allergy,’ [they think] you’re just going to get a little rash,” Laurel Francoeur says. “They don’t understand that it’s life-threatening – that’s an issue that you always have to combat.”
One in every 13 children in the U.S. has a food allergy, according to the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education. That's about two students in every classroom, the organization points out. And that proportion is on the rise: Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies among children increased by about 50 percent, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
"Over the last five years, we've seen many infants and toddlers with food allergies, so over the next few years there will be many more children in middle school and grade school with food allergies," says Mark Holbreich, an allergist in Indianapolis. "It's a problem that we need to be more aware of."
Bullying, which is common among children with allergies, only compounds the issue. In a 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics, nearly half of the 251 food allergic kids reported being bullied, and nearly one-third were bullied because of their allergies.
The rate of children and adolescents bullied for any reason is around 17 to 34 percent, but it’s hard to pin down since there’s no universal definition for bullying, says one of the study’s authors, Eyal Shemes, an associate professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“It’s a higher rate than the general population, but that’s not surprising because they have a vulnerability,” Shemesh says. “It’s the nature of the beast.”
A Range of Consequences
Bullying is linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders and other psychological consequences, says Susan Sweare, an educational psychology professor and co-director of the Bullying Research Network at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her research has shown that kids who both bully and who are bullied are at greatest risk of developing psychological problems. “It’s not just the kids who are bullied or the kids who bully…but the kids who do both,” she says.
But the ramifications may be more profound for children who are bullied about their food allergies than for those who are bullied for other reasons because the threats and bullying acts often involve the food the victim is allergic to. That means the bullying an actually be life-threatening, Shemesh says. “I think this is one thing that sets apart, to some extent, bullying of food-allergic people” from bullying of, say, overweight people, he says.
Kids who are bullied about their food allergies can also become especially anxious after an incident, in part because they may believe their lives are on the line.
For Samantha Goldfar, an 8-year-old in Brooklyn, New York, with a severe peanut allergy, that anxiety stems from a time in kindergarten when a classmate chewed a peanut butter cracker, spit it out and smeared it on her hair. “It just terrified my daughter,” says her mom, Jo Goldfar. “We’ve been dealing with it ever since.”
In the Pediatrics survey, Shemesh found that the more bullying a child experienced, the lower his or her quality of life.
That’s notable, he says, because improving quality of life – rather than, say, managing pain – s usually the goal for someone with a food allergy. “When you have a food allergy you don’t suffer most of the time … if you don’t eat the allergen,” Shemesh says. “As opposed to other illnesses, the morbidity involved in food allergy is really very much about quality of life and anxiety – it's not about the illness itself so much.”
What Can You Do?
On the up side, not all kids with allergies will suffer negative consequences from bullying. Some may hardly be effected, and others may actually grow from the experience.
In the latter case, “the child will learn to handle these things in a way that will be beneficial to him or her during their life as an adult,” says Shemesh, ho directs the EMPOWER (Enhancing, Managing, and Promoting Well-being and Resiliency) Program at Mount Sinai’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute. The program helps children and their families cope with the emotional and behavioral side of allergies through consultations, referrals and group treatment.
Jeremy Francoeur, for one, has already gained some positive traits from his experiences with allergies. He’s more responsible and less impulsive than most other kids his age, his mom says. “He’s also very empathic,” she adds. “It’s given him a lot of empathy because he realizes what it’s like to be the odd man out.”
Here’s how you help your child with allergies thrive and fend off bullying:
- Educate. After Laurel Francoeur learned about “allergen tag,” she talked to her son’s teacher, who played a video about allergies in class. Afterward, Jeremy talked to the class about what it feels like to have allergies and to be excluded because of them. “Education goes a long way,” Laurel Francoeur says. “Don’t assume that [bullying] is necessarily coming from malice.” Food Allergy Research & Education, for example, has resources for parents, teachers, coaches and other leaders to teach kids how to support peers with food allergies.
- Know Your Risks. When Holbreich learns his young clients are being bullied because of their peanut allergies, he asks them what they think would happen if somebody touched them with peanut butter on their hands. Some say nothing, some say they might die. Then, he shows them the answer by putting a little peanut butter on their arms. “It sort of empowers the children to realize that if someone does stick some food in their face or touch them with food, they’re not going to have a severe reaction,” Holbreich says. “You’d have to ingest the food to really ever have a problem.” In some cases, a child who’s believed to have a food allergy may not, since blood test don't measure the risk for allergies as accurately as diagnostic evaluations, says James Sublett, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. That’s why it’s important to get tested by an allergist. “We’ve had situations where children come in and have been told already that they have food allergy, and once we do the evaluation and the challenge, they can eat the food with no problem at all,” Sublett says.
- Get Involved. In their research, Shemesh and his colleagues found that when parents know about their child’s bullying – something that was the case only half the time – the child had a better quality of life and less anxiety. In a follow-up study published last year, the team found that when parents did something about it, like talking to school personnel, the bullying lessened. The message for parents? Ask your kids if they’re getting bullied, and if so, get involved. “Don’t ever say, ‘Just ignore the bullying,’” Shemesh says. “If you ignore a behavior ... it escalates before it extinguishes. And in this particular case you can’t allow it to escalate – it’s not an option.”