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Kids and food allergies: How to stop the bullying

For some children, food allergies are more than a physical reaction – they’re fodder for bullies. Here, we explore the problem and ways to make life better for these kids.

Australia has one of the highest rates of food allergies in the world. About 10% of infants, 4-8% of children and 2% of adults in Australia and New Zealand experience allergic reactions to particular foods. The most common culprits are peanuts, tree nuts, egg, cow’s milk, sesame, shellfish, soy, fish and wheat.

Through his clinical practice, Dr Andrew Fong noticed increasing numbers of families with children who have food allergies reporting experiences of bullying. International studies have explored the significant impact of food allergies on bullying behaviour, but Dr Fong wanted to investigate the occurrence in Australian children and adolescents.

What his research says

The study, published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, reported on interviews with 93 food-allergic children and adolescents (or the parents of younger food-allergic children) and found that overall, 42% experienced some form of bullying. This was higher in the older children and adolescent group (10–19 year olds), where 53% reported being bullied.

“We asked our participants why they felt they were bullied and 23% believed they were bullied or teased specifically because of their food allergy,” says Dr Fong.

Also concerning was the fact that 24 respondents said their oppressors used the food in question to enact the abuse.

Dr Fong compared the results with estimations of bullying experienced by the broader Australian population. “These rates are 1.5 times higher than the rates of bullying in the Australian school population,” he says. “Strategies and interventions need to be implemented to protect children and adolescents from allergic reactions and experiences of teasing and bullying.”

Why is food allergy bullying happening?

Managing a food allergy is complex and is often a day-to-day burden on individuals and families. Emma Warner is the principal psychologist and founding director of the Allergy Support Hub, a not-for-profit organisation that provides support like workshops, counselling, training and resources to individuals with allergies, and their families.

Emma says she believes food allergies and bullying result from a lack of education and awareness about how severe food allergies can be. “I see food allergy as an invisible condition where children and young people for the most part appear well,” she says. “It’s not until they come into contact with their allergen that they can become incredibly sick or the situation becomes life-threatening.”

Educating kids about food allergies

According to Emma, education, knowledge and awareness are the keys to combating bullying behaviour around food allergies. “There’s no place for bullying in any circumstances and, at the root, bullying is about noticing a potential vulnerability in someone and taking advantage of that,” she says.

“Teaching staff, schools and parents all have a role in modelling appropriate behaviour
to children and young people around how to be inclusive and accept individual differences, whether or not children have allergies.”

Here are some tips for tackling the issue at home and in the schoolyard:

  • Talk with children about the different ways that people eat. Acknowledging that some people eat or avoid certain foods because of their beliefs, traditions or allergies, helps raise awareness about the need for people to eat foods that will keep them safe and healthy.
  • Get the school involved. Educational environments play an important role in encouraging positive experiences for children with food sensitivities. “Anecdotal responses by the parents in our study support the belief that education of friends, classmates and teachers about allergies played a role in the protection from bullying,” says Dr Fong. 
  • Make sure children with allergies have an individualised plan before they go to school. Teachers and school-support staff can also use Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia’s ‘Be a Mate’ awareness program, which is designed to help educators encourage conversation about food allergies with students.

Signs of bullying

Educators and parents should keep an eye out for signs that children may be dealing with bullying. They include:

  • sudden anxiety about attending school
  • not eating lunch or bringing uneaten food home from school
  • eating alone or unexplained depression.

It’s not always easy for children to raise these issues with their parents or teachers, but if parents are aware that food-allergy bullying exists, they can help address it if the issue arises.    

In her practice, Emma encourages assertiveness as a skill children and young people need to develop to help them tackle the problem now and in the future. “Being assertive allows children to speak up about their allergies and take ownership of their condition,” she says. “Developing assertiveness will give them very necessary skills to see them into adulthood.”

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published March 2020
 

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