Thursday, September 30, 2010

Food Allergy Bullying

As parents of peanut allergic children, worrying about an accidental exposure is not our only concern.  We also need to be aware of the potential for possible malicious exposure.  According to a recent study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 1 in 4 children, teens and young adults are teased, bullied or harassed about their allergy.  JoNel Aleccia, a health writer for, reports the details of the new study in her article, "Peanut menance? Allergy bullies use food to torment allergic kids." She begins her article with a horrifying tale of a high school student in Washington State who purposely smeared peanut butter on the face of a student with a serious peanut allergy.

As to be expected, the percentage of reports of bullying rises according to age.  Remove children 5 and under from the study of 353 families and the percentage of instances increased to 35%.  That number jumped to 50% for children in grades 6th through 12th.  The study also indicated that most of the bullying came in a verbal form of teasing and harassment, but 35% of the bullying involved actually take on a physical form.

I'm not surprised, and preparing Abigail to deal with possible physical threats from her own peers is something that I intend to address as she gets older.  I've already had to soothe tears over a verbal taunt.  Last year in 1st grade one of her friends was in a grumpy mood and told Abigail that she would wave her peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her face if she didn't play what she wanted.  Right or wrong, at the time, I didn't report the incident to either the teacher or the friend's parents.  The little girl was 6, and giving her the benefit of the doubt, she probably had no idea of the implications of her taunt.  I did explain to Abigail that had she actually put the sandwich up to her face, that would have been a different matter entirely.  We also talked about how in general she should stand up to her peers and not do something she feels uncomfortable doing because of a threat.  We're still working on that lesson.

Most of the the bullying does come from other students, but the study reported that 20% of those families asked had experienced teasing and/or harassment from teachers or other school staff.  We can relate to that also.  In Kindergarten, Abigail's teacher made a very insensitive remark that left Abigail feeling betrayed by a really important role model, and me just downright angry.  I'm sure the teacher never gave the remark a second thought, but it was a topic of discussion for quite a while in our house.

I haven't figured out the best time to inform Abigail that someone might actually purposely try to harm her by using her food allergy against her.  I'd like to keep that innocence a little while longer.  I'd love to hear how some of you handled that discussion.

So, what happened to the teenager in Washington that wiped peanut butter on the peanut allergic student?  He was suspended from school, faced an assault charge and spent 4 days in jail.  When asked why, it was reported that he didn't understand the seriousness of the allergy.  Do we all find that hard to believe??  Because food allergies are a daily part of our existence, I'd immediately say yes!  But, how many people do we run across on a daily basis that just don't get it??

I started out writing about food allergy bullying, but am ending by stating that if there was more food allergy education, and if kids, their parents and the community as a whole better understood the potential life-threatening results of waving a sandwich or smearing peanut butter on the face of someone who has a serious food allergy, then society would have to stop using the term "bullying" and start using verbage like physical abuse, cruelty and assault.

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