Here are experts’ recommendations for schools, students and parents on dealing with food allergy bullying.
Talk to your child. If you have a child with a food allergy, you should start a conversation in a nonthreatening way, said Scott Sicherer of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Ask, “Has anyone ever made you feel bad about your food allergy, or bothered or teased you about it? It’s okay to let me know, you won’t get into any trouble, but I know this happens to some kids, and schools can do something about it without involving me or you directly.”
If your child responds that, yes, she has been a victim of bullying, Sicherer recommends explaining to the child that adults will get involved to help. He suggests that parents discuss this with the school administration. The school can institute its anti-bullying procedures, ideally including education about the seriousness of food allergies. (Procedures and laws vary by state.)
Ask open-ended questions. Inquire “about how the school day has gone, because that can just open up enough information to indicate if there are concerns,” said Linda Herbert of Children’s National Health System. Ask: How was lunch today? Who was at your table? What kinds of activities did you do? By just getting a conversation going, you might learn that your child sat by herself at lunch. By asking why that happened, the conversation may reveal whether the child is being bullied, Herbert said.
Buddy up, and don’t engage a bully. Children should learn skills appropriate for any kind of bullying, Herbert said: “You don’t engage with a bully, you have a buddy, and you walk away. You find out what the administration policy is on bullying, and you find out who you can to talk to in the school if needed.”
Reassure the bullied. Sicherer said he tells patients, “You are not about the foods you can’t eat. There are people who are diabetics who can’t eat certain foods. There are people who have celiac disease who can’t eat certain foods. There are people who are vegetarians who have a specific diet. So having a diet doesn’t define you.” He recommends that parents remind children of their strengths in school and activities to make them feel better about themselves.
Educate the community. Herbert said schools need to educate all students about food allergies and the need to keep young people safe. “Having general education that doesn’t single out an individual kid in class as being the reason you’re doing it is just a great way to normalize it,” she said. “Schools and teachers can provide an atmosphere where everybody is aware of food allergies and all other chronic illnesses.”
Consider where your child eats. If parents and children feel comfortable with the option, food-allergic children may feel less isolated if they don’t eat at an “allergy-only” table, which many schools offer as an option. “One of the things that I sometimes recommend is having kids eat at the end of the table, and not at a separate table, because then at least they are with their friends but they can be a little bit separate and they can feel safe there,” Herbert said.
Encourage nonfood activities. Bullying over food allergies might diminish if there were fewer situations in which food-allergic students were perceived as different. “Schools can be really proactive about being able to ensure that there are social activities that don’t revolve around food,” Herbert said. “It’s perfectly possible to have activities that don’t revolve around cake: Maybe you have balloons and we play outside and there’s extra recess time.”
For more information:
●Food Allergy Research & Education, at foodallergyawareness.org.
●Food Allergy Awareness and Anaphylaxis Connection Team, at foodallergyawareness.org.
— Suzanne Allard Levingston