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School and Allergies, Asthma

Food Allergy Bullying on the Rise

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What Should Parents Do?

There’s no magic bullet to prevent or resolve bullying, but there’s a lot of consensus on what helps. And while anaphylaxis is an unwanted difference that can make kids a target, it’s never a good idea to hide or downplay that difference. In fact, the experts interviewed for this article were unanimous that the more everyone around your child knows about her allergy, the safer she’ll be.

Another unanimous point: Dealing with bullying is mostly the responsibility of adults; we shouldn’t expect the victims to handle it all by themselves.

Steps for Parents to Take:

Know what’s going on – Staying aware of what’s happening in your child’s life is not a problem for many parents of allergic kids, who tend to be highly involved at school, especially in the early years. Cheryl Dorsey was there when her daughter was harassed because she and her husband make sure that one of them volunteers on every field trip.

But as your child grows older and you start to give him a little more space, he may not tell you if he’s being bullied; kids can be embarrassed or they may think no one can help anyway. So how do you know?

Coloroso says a child who is being bullied may show a sudden lack of interest in school or even refuse to go; his grades may drop; he may stop talking about peers and everyday activities, and may complain of stomach aches or headaches; his sleep patterns may change and he may withdraw from family time and other social activities.

It’s key to keep the lines of communication open with older kids, and direct interrogation is likely to make them clam up, says Sean Breen, a 21-year-old with anaphylactic allergies who endured a handful of bullying incidents during his school years in a suburb north of Toronto. Breen encourages parents of teens to keep conversations frequent and casual, and listen carefully for hints that your child may need help.

Support your child – Your child needs an action plan in case of bullying or otherwise being made to feel unsafe; Jackson Tichenor knew, for example, that he should go to the school nurse. You’ll likely need to talk about the plan over and over; make sure your child understands that bullying needs to be reported to a trusted adult.

If your child is bullied, Coloroso says, she needs a strong and clear message that you believe in her, and that it’s not her fault. Breen echoes that, advising parents not to second-guess how their child has responded. “Being told, ‘You didn’t handle that properly,’ won’t help. And it won’t make you do it right the next time,” he says.

Work with your school – The best action on bullying is, of course, preventing it. And the obvious first step is working with your school to raise awareness of anaphylaxis – including the risk of bullying. (See our “Web Resources”.) Like Dorsey, many parents of anaphylactic kids volunteer regularly.

Become informed about anti-bullying programs and policies at your school and at the board or district level, as well as procedures for handling an incident. If you’re not satisfied, offer to research resources that could strengthen the response.

But say you’ve done all this, and still your child is victimized. If the teacher and principal are not already aware, you need to tell them. That goes for cyber-bullying too, as well as incidents off school property that involve members of the school community. The more specific you can be about what happened, the better.

With bullying high on the radar of most educators, you should expect the school to take it seriously and act with appropriate consequences; Coloroso says it’s wrong for anyone to try to minimize or explain away the behavior. Experts stress that ending bullying is an adult job because of the power imbalance that sustains the behavior. The child who is victimized can’t always extricate herself from the situation, and trying make the bullying stop without adult involvement may only make it worse.

The cases that demand intervention beyond school discipline are, thankfully, rare, but principals need to know when bullying crosses into criminal assault. For example, a teen in Wenatchee, Washington, was sentenced to four days in jail in 2008 for smearing peanut butter on the forehead of a fellow student who had a severe allergy. And the same year, police in Lexington, Kentucky, arrested a 13-year-old after she sprinkled peanut butter cookie crumbs in the lunchbox of a student with severe allergies.

Lisa Tichenor was pleased with the principal’s decisive action when her son was threatened. “(The perpetrators) were given such a talking to that they were really scared; they apologized and they never did it again. Nothing like that has ever happened again.”

Keep friends close – If there’s good news from parents whose severely allergic kids have been bullied, it’s how their children’s friends and classmates rallied around. In many cases, another child tells the bully to back off or runs for the teacher. As one mother wrote on the Allergic Living Facebook page, “Teachers aren’t always there to witness something said or done, but there is always another kid there to speak up!” The FARE “Be a PAL” program offers downloadable teaching materials to help kids understand how to help keep their allergic friends safe.

Breen says watchful friends become even more important as allergic teens’ social lives evolve. “I’ve got some friends who sometimes get a little more anxious than I do about the whole peanut thing. But it’s nice to know these people have your back.”

Teach caring – Coloroso sees it as adults’ duty to teach kids about respecting differences and embracing our common humanity, and about accepting one another. And acceptance is more than just tolerating somebody; the goal to her is “deep caring,” a drive to be kind, compassionate and loving.

“We have to model the behavior,” she says, “but we also have to talk about it. I might say to a child, ‘No, we’re not going to bring Mama’s favorite peanut butter dessert – because someone’s going to be there who can’t be around peanuts, because it makes them very, very ill.’”

Fortunately – and this is important, to keep bullying in perspective – many children embrace the caring that Coloroso talks about. Bullies are the exception, while compassionate, sensitive kids are far more numerous. As one parent put it on the Allergic Living Facebook page: “Most kids are amazing and more empathetic than many adults. I’ve seen wonderful examples of caring kids looking out for my son.”

Web Resources on Bullying

  • Barbara Coloroso’s site offers downloadable handouts for parents.
  • U.S. government site with numerous anti-bullying resources.
  • This research site includes info sheets and perspectives on both victims and perpetrators.
  • FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) site includes sections for kids and teens.
  • A youth-focused site from Food Allergy Canada, including true stories of bullying incidents from allergic teens.
  • Click on the “Schools” tab on the homepage.

Views on allergy bullying? Tell us about them on our Facebook page: www.facebook/allergicliving.

Related reading:
• Allergic Living’s article Food Allergy Bullying: What You Can Do.
• Study finds 1 in 10 students with asthma bullied.

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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