Food Allergy Bullying on the Rise

in Parenting & School
Published: September 17, 2012

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The Consequences

All bullying is serious, but when an anaphylactic child is targeted, of course, the results can be life-threatening. In the survey, more than half of those who reported bullying said it got physical, with acts such as waving or throwing the allergen at the allergic child. Fortunately, none of these incidents resulted in an anaphylactic reaction.

Still, the fear is real; responses to the survey showed that, in over 60 percent of the cases, bullying made the victims feel sad or depressed, as well as humiliated or embarrassed. Other research has shown the prolonged effects bullying can have kids, including depression, low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Tracie Michelson’s son was afraid to go to school the day after he was threatened.

Perhaps more worrying, older kids who are targeted may try to hide their allergies by not carrying an auto-injector, says Kyle Dine, who coordinates the youth advisory panel at Anaphylaxis Canada. “Especially with that teenage group, they don’t want to be embarrassed; they just want to fit in and be like all their friends.”

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.

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