FeaturesDec/Jan 2013 Issue

Food-Allergy Bullying

Warning Signs

Children don’t always tell their parents about bullying but the signs are usually there. A child can appear sad, upset, withdrawn or anxious, have trouble sleeping or say that he or she doesn’t want to go to school. Other indications may be changes in the child’s behavior, stomachaches, nightmares, lower grades, outbursts and social isolation. Kids who are bullied because of food allergies might also have changes in their eating habits, come home with an untouched lunch box, exhibit unexplained weight loss or display other dramatic changes in eating behaviors.

In March, Sicherer presented preliminary findings of an unpublished study in which parents and children were interviewed separately about food allergy bullying. Results showed that nearly one-third (32 percent) of parents were unaware of the allergy-related bullying. For children who reported being bullied more than once a month, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of parents were unaware of the problem.

“Many children with food allergies have reported bullying but the parents often don’t know about it,” says Sicherer, who adds that parents, teachers, camp administrators and allergists should all have a “high index of suspicion” about food allergy bullying. Since children with food allergy are vulnerable to bullying, adults should be aware of the potential danger and bring up the topic with the kids.

Food allergy bullying can present emotional danger, just like any other form of bullying. But if it involves ingestion of the food to which the child is allergic, it can be life-threatening, says Ralph E. (Gene) Cash, Ph.D., nationally certified school psychologist and professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Cash often speaks about the risks of food allergy bullying alongside his wife, Dana Wallace, MD, associate clinical professor at Nova Southeastern University and past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

“When people are threatened with something that they fear—whether it’s a fist in their face or peanut butter smeared on their head or a fish thrown into their locker—they’re going to be frightened. And justifiably so. Bullying is intimidating and it causes tremendous psychological problems for the kids,” Cash says.

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