Food Allergies, Bullying

When I was a child, I was not teased nor bullied about food allergies – at least not often nor regularly – not that caused any lasting memories or trauma. I was the only kid who had them in my class , there was no media attention on the topic, there were no special nut-free tables and there were no autoinjectors of epinephrine to carry.

But I was teased and harassed regularly about my asthma by my gym teacher, for years. Remember that episode from Frasier where he stops dating a female gym teacher because she reminds him of his grade-school gym teacher who teased him for not climbing the rope? Yeah, that kind of trauma.

So I was very interested to see this study (based on a questionnaire of FAAN participants) into the real incidents of bullying, teasing and harassment because of food allergies. The study, released today, I hope will bring more scholarly attention to the psychosocial effects of food allergies, a topic I explore in my forthcoming book, Allergic Girl.

Colleague and allergic girl, Elizabeth Landau of covered the study here.

And here’s a press release from Mount Sinai:

First Study of Its Kind Finds Children with Food Allergies Are Often Victims of Bullying

(New York – September 28, 2010) In the first-ever study to assess the social impact of food allergies in children, Mount Sinai researchers have found that approximately 35 percent of children with food allergies over the age of five reported experiencing bullying, teasing, or harassment as a result of their allergies. Of those experiencing teasing or harassment, 86 percent were reported to have experienced repeated episodes. Classmates were the most common perpetrators, but surprisingly more than 20 percent reported harassment or teasing from teachers and other school staff. The data are reported in the October issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Led by Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers analyzed survey responses from 353 parents or caregivers of children with food allergies and food-allergic individuals. The survey was conducted at meetings of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network in Tarrytown, New York, Rosemont, Illinois, and Baltimore, Maryland in 2009.

“We know that food allergy in children affects quality of life and causes issues like anxiety, depression, and stress for them and their parents,” said Dr. Sicherer. “However, our study is the first to explore teasing, harassment and bullying behaviors aimed at these children. The results are disturbing, as they show that children not only have to struggle with managing their food allergies, but also commonly bear harassment from their peers.”

More than 43 percent were reported to have had the allergen waved in their face and 64 percent were reported as having experienced verbal teasing. No allergic reactions resulted from the bullying, but approximately 65 percent reported resulting feelings of depression and embarrassment.

“It was recently estimated that nearly one in 25 children has a food allergy,” said Dr. Sicherer. “What is so concerning about these results is the high rate of teasing, harassment and bullying, its impact on these vulnerable children, and the fact that perpetrators include not only other children, but adults as well. Considering the seriousness of food allergy, these unwanted behaviors risk not only adverse emotional outcomes, but physical risks as well. It is clear that efforts to rectify this issue must address a better understanding of food allergies as well as strict no-bullying programs in schools.”

A previous study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that 17 percent of children in grades 6 through 10 reported being bullied. While this study was not designed to determine prevalence of bullying in children with food allergy, the number of patients bullied in the corresponding age group according to the survey is double that of the prior study. The authors suggest that school programs designed to reduce bullying should include information about the vulnerable population of children with food allergies.


My 9 year old son with peanut/tree nut allergies has had two significant incidents of bullying that left me shaken. The first one was when he was 6 at daycamp. A group of older boys brought him a doughnut that they knew had been in a box with peanut covered doughnuts and told him "your brother said you can have this, it's safe". Fortunately, even at 6, he had the capacity to say No. Also, his older brother noticed something going on and came over. The boys thought it would be funny to watch what happened. When questioned they said "well, the counselor has that shot thing. He'd be okay."

Equally disturbing was an incident on the bus. A "frienemy" of my older daughter's threatened to spit cashews on my son if my daughter didn't do what the "frienemy" asked. She took the baggie of cashews and kept pretending to be about to spill them or to spit on him. Both my daughter and son were upset for weeks. Worst of all, they were initially afraid to tell me about it because they knew I would "do something" about it. And they didn't want more repercussions from the bully! Fortunately I was able to talk with them and show them a solution that would "save face" for them, while still addressing the root problem.

It saddens me that kids who already are dealing with life and death issues and have grave responsibility thrust on them at a young age are threatened for "fun" or for a power game.

Also, parents should remember to look for issues with the siblings of the food allergic kid. They also many times feel a heightened responsibility to help protect their sibling which leaves them vulnerable.
Michelle H. said…
I think that this study is very interesting. However, I would like to see similar statistics from 15 to 20 years ago. I am 23 years old and have had anaphylaxis to milk, tree nuts, and peanuts since I was 10 months old. I grew up in a small suburban town, with around 100 kids per grade. Every year I would have to experience the embarrassing ordeal of explaining my food allergies. My father is a doctor, so he would come in, explain, medically, my situation, and play the "It Only Takes One Bite" video from FAN (now FAAN).

Needless to say, I dealt with a lot of bullying. From kids shaking their milk cartons at me menacingly, to once incident where a girl held the open half of a Nutter Butter cookie a millimeter from my nose on the school bus. However, I felt that I was in a better situation than most other kids with food allergies (most of whom I met at FAAN conferences). At least I always had my teachers on my side who would stand up for me. I knew kids whose school nurses would tease them AND their parents, saying they were making it all up.

When I was a kid, I had to explain my food allergies everywhere I went. No one understood the concept of life-threatening food allergies. They truly could not grasp it.

Nowadays, schools are nut-free because one child in a school of 1,000 has a nut allergy. Everyone around the world knows what peanut allergies are. Bullying kids with food allergies is seen as a horrible thing. Even 15 years ago, no one would have noticed.

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