Food-Allergic Kids More Likely to Be Bullied (Maybe)

BlogHer Original Post

The food allergy world is abuzz this week with the results of a new study on the prevalence of bullying when it comes to our kids with food allergies; the numbers are sobering. CNN's Elizabeth Landau reports:

More children with food allergies may experience acts of bullying and other targeted negative behaviors than their peers, Sicherer said. A 2001 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study found that about 17 percent of children in grades six to 10 reported being bullied. By comparison, 50 percent of kids in that age group in the food allergy study were reported to have experienced bullying, teasing or harassment.

Right off the bat I'm thinking this isn't a particularly well-controlled comparison. For one thing, the sample size from the 2001 study is presumably larger than the 305ish surveys collected at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis conference where parents were polled. Even the CNN article points out that for this recent study, parents were the respondents, while in the other study, children were self-reporting. And nearly a decade is a long time to assume a stable rate of bullying in the population at large. The point is, I'm prepared to take these figures with a grain of salt.

But then there's another article, this time by FOX News, that goes into greater detail. Among the gems here is this little tidbit you might miss if you weren't paying close attention:

Of those affected, 86 percent reported multiple episodes.

About 82 percent of these episodes occurred at school, with 80 percent of the cases involving classmates as the bullies and about 20 percent involving teachers or other school staff as bullies.

I... uhhhhh... wow. 20% involved teachers or school staff as bullies? Really? I'm not saying that's not correct, I'm just not even clear as to what that might mean. Do we have teachers taunting students with peanut butter sandwiches, or do we have a teacher saying, "Well I just don't understand why I can't eat peanut butter at school just because you can't have it." Not that I would excuse a statement like that, but I personally would call that ignorance -- okay, maybe even stupidity -- but not bullying. I don't want to believe 20% of this mistreatment of food allergic students is happening at the hands of adults. But I can't really know from what I've read whether that number is accurate and I'm just naive, or if the study is problematic and perhaps painting a picture that isn't entirely, shall we say, precise.

060521peanutsTo be absolutely clear about where I stand in the food allergy realm: My youngest child was anaphylactic to peanuts as a young child, and he was also contact sensitive. In fact, the way we found out he was allergic was when I handed my perfectly healthy toddler a square of a PB&J and he carefully stuck his finger into it (as he was wont to do) and began waving it around. I chuckled and turned my back on his highchair long enough to go pour him some milk, and by the time I turned back to him he'd broken out in welts and his eyes were swelling shut. And he was screaming, wheezing and drooling. Not my favorite day, to say the least. For years we lived in a completely nut-free household, carried EpiPens with us everywhere we went, asked airlines to please not serve peanuts on our flights (peanut dust + recycled air = bad news), made arrangements for him to eat at a nut-free table at school, and wrote a yearly letter to his classmates explaining why hand-washing was really very important if you were eating peanut butter around a kid with a contact sensitivity.

People sometimes said stupid things. "Oh, maybe he should just try it again!" "Just a little isn't going to hurt him." My former mother-in-law once set a bowl of nuts on the coffee table and then insisted we should just tell him not to touch them. (He was two at the time.) I never asked for his school to go nut-free -- I didn't think it was necessary, given the precautions we were already taken -- but I had friends elsewhere who listened to bitter complaints about how it wasn't fair that Little Joey couldn't have his favorite sandwich because of those "crazy overprotective parents." I know that animosity in this realm is real. I would by lying if I said I wasn't relieved when my son joined the lucky 20% of those who outgrow an early childhood peanut allergy. I was relieved not only because it meant one less health worry, but because it meant his life would be less complicated, and it would be one way in which he would no longer have to be different.

Kids are cruel, and it's the rare child who escapes bullying. Kids will be teased for anything that makes them different, so I'm sure that teasing about food allergies does happen. I even believe that some nut-allergic kids are taunted with "I'm going to throw this peanut at you!" What I wonder is 1) whether the kids making those threats really understand what it is they're saying, and 2) whether we can call this a valid study.

On the Momformation blog, Gwen Dewar points out her concerns with this study's numbers, including the study population being "concerned enough about allergies to attend a conference about it" and that the most common "physical act of bullying" was... waving an allergen at someone with an allergy. Good points, all of 'em.

Diane of No Nuts for My Peanut was very upset by the study's findings, and says this shows we need more education, more advocacy, and above all, to teach our allergy kids to stand up for themselves.

Jenny of The Nut-Free Mom says they've only experienced some mild teasing, but she's glad the media is looking at the non-medical ramifications of living with food allergies.

What do you think -- are food allergic kids experiencing more bullying than their non-allergic counterparts? Do we really have teachers and school staff bullying kids over food? (I hope the answer is no, but if you've experienced otherwise, please do share.) Is it just plain bullying that's on the rise, or something else?

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir is dreaming of the day when bullying is something that isn't tolerated against anyone, anywhere. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and posts all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

Photo Credit: Dan4th Nicholas.

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