(Health Secrets) It is estimated that 5.9 million children in the United States have at least one food allergy. A startling 30% of these kids are also the regular target of bullies who taunt them with the very foods they’re allergic to. Reports of children who’ve been held down and had peanut butter smeared on their faces, or who opened their allergy-free lunch boxes only to find wheat cookie crumbs can be found all over the Internet.
Not only does this type of bullying cause emotional damage, it could also be life-threatening.
Food-allergic children are targets for several reasons: One, the food allergies themselves make them different and for bullies, different is as appealing as blood is to a shark. Two, many children with food allergies also struggle with learning disabilities and behavioral problems that further ostracize them from their peers.
Here are 7 tips to help protect your food-allergic child from bullies:
- Talk to Your Child About Bullying
Even if you have an open relationship with your child and feel he tells you everything, he may still try to hide bullying from you. Bullying often makes a child feel ashamed, as though just by existing, they’re doing something wrong.
Even if he seems generally happy and upbeat after school, ask him about his lunch and recess experience, as these two times of the day are a favorite among bullies. “It was a nice day out today. Did you enjoy recess?” “Who did you eat lunch with today?”
This might help him feel more comfortable opening up.
- Inform Your Child’s School of His Allergy
Talk with your child’s teachers and the school administrators about her food allergy and the special accommodations needed to keep her safe. Ensure they know what to do if your child is exposed to an offending food. Discuss bullying and what steps are customarily taken to offer protection and education of the bullied child and the bullies respectively.
- Encourage Siblings and Neighbors to be Advocates
Siblings and neighbors are often your child’s best advocate when it comes to dealing with bullies who don’t take his food allergies seriously. After all, they’ve spent more time around him and understand the importance of special accommodations. Ask them to advocate for the food-allergic child by standing up for him when necessary but avoid acting like hovering bodyguards as this could have the opposite of the desired effect.
- Teach Your Child the Right Way to Talk About Her Allergy
Children with food allergies automatically have one strike against them when it comes to fitting in with their peers. As soon as they are in a situation where food is being served, their difference stands out like a neon sign.
That’s when the questions begin: “How can you be allergic to food?” “What will happen to you?”
It can be very hard for a child who is already feeling bad about herself to answer these questions without becoming emotional or defensive, especially if they trigger a memory of an unpleasant trip or two to the hospital.
Explain to your child that answering questions calmly and without a great deal of emotion is the best approach. Let her know that the more relaxed and in control she appears when discussing her food allergy, the less bullies will be likely to be interested in targeting her. After all, half the fun for any bully is getting the reaction.
- Pack Typical-Appearing Lunches
As a parent of a child with food allergies, you’ve probably gotten very good at creating fun and interesting meals for your little one. Unfortunately, bullies are always on the lookout for anything that stands out as too different.
While avocado slices, pita chips, and cottage cheese certainly makes for a healthy meal, it may call too much attention to a child who is already being bullied. Instead, play it safe, and pack an allergy-accommodating sandwich (on gluten-free bread or with almond butter instead of peanuts), some cut vegetables, chips, pretzels, etc.
Ask your friends and neighbors what they pack for their kids. This way, you can prepare similar-looking lunches that are less conspicuous.
- Suggest School-Wide Education on Food Allergies
Children who have no health problems cannot understand how a food they can eat with no problem could harm another child. This is why education is so important. Talk with your school superintendent about asking a dietician or nutritionist to come to the school and discuss the growing prevalence of food allergies and the very real threat of minimal exposure. If a bully learns he or she might unintentionally cause the death of another child by exposing them to an allergen, they may be less likely to torment with food.
- Her Food Allergy May Be Considered a Disability
Your child’s food allergy could be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act enacted in 1973. This means the school is legally obligated to provide an equal education to every one of its students. Have your child evaluated for a 504 Plan to further ensure his or her protection and access to a safe education.
Bullying is an age-old problem and, no matter how much we want it to stop, it won’t anytime soon. The best thing you can do is support your child’s unique strengths and talents so she spends more time focusing on what’s good about her instead of what has been signaled out as different.
How about you? What have you done to protect your food-allergic child from bullying?