Food Allergy Bullying: A Deadly Joke

I’ve had a severe shellfish allergy for almost my entire life. Lucky for me, shrimp cocktail isn’t a classic treat for school birthday celebrations, and lobster isn’t used to make a common frying oil. But still, every time I order food, I have to tell the restaurant about my allergy. Every time I eat at a buffet, I have to be sure that the tongs I’m using weren’t just used to pick up a crab cake. It becomes normal, but it’s scary living a life where every meal is potentially deadly. And for children and teens with allergies to more common foods, it can deeply affect their entire lives and increase their chances of becoming victims of bullying. Every class birthday, every trip to the diner with friends, and every slumber party is bracketed by the fact that what’s normal for everyone else can make them very, very sick, or even cause their tongues to swell up and suffocate them. And at a time when fitting in matters so much, standing out in such a dangerous way can take an emotional toll.

It’s strange to look at something like an itty-bitty peanut, a glass of milk, or a cute little shrimp and know that it could kill you—it’s almost hard to believe. For those without allergies, it’s difficult to understand how something so small, so common, so innocuous could possibly cause such a severe reaction in others. “Unfortunately, because many people do not understand the truly life-threatening nature of this disease, what can be seen as a prank is actually very harmful and potentially very dangerous. But food allergy bullying can have serious emotional and physical consequences,” says John Lehr, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

Earlier this year, Pediatrics (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) published a study revealing that about 1 in 3 food-allergic children have reported being bullied specifically because of their allergy. These bullying incidents can range from taunts and mean comments to physical threats or “pranks.” What a non-allergic student may consider “just a joke,” such as touching an allergic classmate with peanut butter, or sneaking cheese into his or her sandwich, could actually be life-threatening.

So how do we get teens to understand the gravity of an allergy? To start, we can show them the powerful PSA created by FARE (above), offering a glimpse of just how difficult life can be for an allergic child (if the image of a little boy standing on his toes to watch his classmates enjoy cupcakes without him doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will). Fortunately, parents and other adults can help teens and children understand the severity of food allergies, and hopefully lead to a more harmonious—and less dangerous—school environment.

Four Steps to Prevent Food-Allergy Bullying:

1. Be a Role Model

Teach your teens not to discriminate, first by making sure you aren’t giving the wrong impression. If you complain about how you can’t send them to school with peanut butter sandwiches, they could interpret that to mean that it’s OK to blame the allergic classmate. Show understanding to encourage understanding.

2. Start the Conversation

Make allergies and other dietary restrictions a topic that your kids are comfortable discussing. If a friend is coming over, ask if he or she has any allergies or if there’s anything he or she can’t eat—even if the friend isn’t coming over for a meal. Let your teens see that you take these restrictions seriously, and that they aren’t something to be dismissed.

3. Walk a Mile With Their EpiPen

If your teens aren’t taking their peers’ food allergies seriously, ask them to put themselves in their peers’ shoes. How would your teens feel if they couldn’t eat their favorite food? And worse, how would they feel if their favorite food could put them in the hospital, or even kill them? And if their peers didn’t understand that, and teased them for it, wouldn’t that be hurtful and unfair?

4. Hear Their Stories

As allergies become more common in children and teens, more youths are coming forward to share their experiences. Check out Nikki Knee's story about her life-threatening allergies from the February 2013 issue of Choices, or visit her blog to learn more.

Do your teens take food allergies seriously? Let us know in the comments below!