We’ve seen kids get bullied for lots of reasons–for being gay, for having learning disabilities and for being overweight. Now, it seems that there is another bullying risk factor to add to the long list: having a food allergy.
According to TIME magazine, “nearly half of kids with food allergies say they’ve been bullied, and a third report that the bullying was food-related. In the most concerning cases, the kids said they were taunted by other kids who stuffed allergens into their mouth or threw food at them.” Owen Kellog, a 7-year-old boy in Utah with a severe peanut allergy, came home crying and scared because another boy told him that he had a peanut and he was going to make him eat it (CNN).
Hard to believe? Unfortunately, as the severity of online and school bullying has risen over the past few years, the fact that kids would exploit their peers’ possibly-fatal allergies seems less far-fetched. Over 2 million school-age children in the United States have food allergies, and the number is on the rise. In kids under 3, the incidence of food allergies is one in 17 (foodallergy.org).
In schools with peanut-free policies, kids with allergies may be blamed for policies that restrict what their classmates can eat. At a classroom event or birthday party, they may not be able to indulge in the same snacks as their friends. For school-age children, anything that sets them apart or makes them feel left out can have huge social and emotional consequences.
Apart from the social consequences that allergies can pose for kids, severe allergies can also be life-threatening. Being taunted with a peanut or other allergen is terrifying for a child whose parents have emphasized how dangerous the food item can be for them. Kids without allergies may not realize how serious the consequences could be if they were to sneak an allergen into their classmate’s food as a joke. Being constantly on guard and worried about what they are eating is stressful for kids and can lead to nutrition problems and anxiety.
Campaigns against bullying for sexual orientation — largely inspired by the recent string of teen suicides related to bullying — have been hugely successful in raising awareness about that issue. Food allergy-related bullying should receive the same intense promotion. Parents of kids with food allergies should ask them if they have been bullied in the past, and talk to them about how to handle it if they are harassed in the future. Getting teachers, principals, and school staff involved is also a crucial step towards making sure that no child feels pressure to eat a food that could potentially kill him. Kids’ lives are at stake, and the time to act is now, before a tragedy occurs.