When Peanuts Become Weapons

Bullying children with food allergies is a serious society problem

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) "Hey little Johnny! Want some peaaaaanutttts? They're goooooood for you! Here, touch them!" Sounds like standard child teasing, right? Unless Johnny has a serious peanut allergy.

Bullying is receiving more attention as a public health issue. A recent study looked specifically at bullying among children with food allergies.

These researchers found that almost a third of the children had been bullied about their allergies. The ridicule they often had to deal with included being forced to touch food or having food thrown at them.

This research study also found that these children had a lower quality of life and higher anxiety if they had been bullied.

"Report bullying you see or hear."

The study, led by Eyal Shemesh, MD, from Kravis Children’s Hospital and the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, aimed to find out whether children with food allergies were subjected to bullying about their allergies.

The researchers gave extensive questionnaires to both the parents and children of 251 families who were going to the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute for treatment. All the children, aged 8 to 18, had at least one diagnosed food allergy. The questionnaires asked about bullying experienced by the children, who was doing the bullying and where it was occurring.

They asked about specific types of activities that qualify as bullying, such as verbal teasing, waving food, criticism, being threatened, being excluded and other activities. The researchers did not specify that the bullying had to occur regularly (one time was enough), but they did specify "frequent bullying" as more than twice a month.

The children and parents also filled out questionnaires to assess their quality of life and their level of stress and anxiety.

The results showed that 45 percent of the children of the children had been bullied for any reason at all, though only 36 percent of the parents reported their child had been bullied. Further analysis revealed that parents were only aware their child had been bullied about 52 percent of the time.

About a third of the children (32 percent) reported being bullied specifically because of their food allergy, and several of the activities reported were related to food.

Thirty percent reported having food waved at them, 12 percent had been forced to touch food, and 10 percent had had food thrown at them.

Analysis of the quality of life and distress questionnaires revealed that both parents and children had lower quality of life and higher anxiety if the child was bullied.

However, children whose parents knew about the bullying tended to have better scores of quality of life than other bullied children whose parents didn't know. The parents who knew about their children's bullying, though, had lower quality of life than the parents of bullied children who didn't know about the bullying.

Most of the bullying came from peers and other students. A total of 80 percent of the children reported being bullied by classmates for food allergies, and 34 percent reported food allergy bullying by other students.

However, teachers were reported by 11 percent of the children for food allergy bullying, and siblings were reported by 13 percent of the children for food allergy bullying.

Overall, 60 percent reported that any of the bullying occurred at school. Children bullied more often had lower quality of life, but even being bullied once was associated with lower quality of life scores.

The researchers concluded that bullying is common in children with food allergies – and related to their food allergies – and that teaching children to report the bullying is better for their quality of life.

"In general, experiences of being teased and harassed can be very traumatizing to children and serve as a barrier to a normal social -emotional development and adjustment." said dailyRx Contributing Expert Georgia Michalopoulou, Ph.D. is Chief of Staff/Assistant to the Chief of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, part of the Detroit Medical Center.

"In the case of children with food allergies being bullied/ threatened /or actually exposed to allergens is not only psychologically damaging but it can be potentially fatal. This is a great source of anxiety for families with food-allergic children for whom the threat of a fatal anaphylaxis is always in their mind. Since most food allergic children tend to be threatened and bullied by their peers in school , education and awareness of the implications of such behavior is imperative. School officials in collaboration with parents and students need to create an environment that fosters and respects safety for every child."

She concludes, "Explain to children how what they assume to be just a joke can potentially kill their classmate. Charge them with the task to come up with ideas of protecting their fellow classmates by ensuring safety in the school cafeteria. Create a program that rewards responsibility, fellowship and kindness. Make them aware of signs of an allergic reaction"

The study was published December 24 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute. One author consults for the Food Allergy Initiative and advises for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 23, 2012
Last Updated:
January 7, 2013