LeAnne Ruzzamenti's son Will, age 9, was attending a summer day camp at a local aquatics center. Will has peanut allergies, so LeAnne had informed the counselors and provided an Epi-Pen to the camp. One day at lunchtime, a boy in Will's group began to taunt him, coming at him with a peanut butter sandwich in a threatening way and saying something along the lines of "I could kill you with this sandwich."
Though bullying is, unfortunately, nothing new among kids, food allergy bullying has the potential to be life threatening. According to research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, it's heartbreakingly common: In a study of families with children who have food allergy, about a third of kids reported being bullied due to their food allergy at least once. In a follow-up one year later, 34 percent said have experienced it more than twice a month--and 69 percent said they were still being bullied.
Not surprisingly, researchers report that food allergy bullying is associated with decreased quality of life for kids and increased distress among kids and their parents.
In the study, the bullying was more likely to be resolved when the parents took action beyond talking to their own kids about it, usually by taking concerns to the principal or teacher about it. "One of the most unequivocal findings in our research on this topic is that parents are a tremendous help in addressing it," says researcher Rachel Annunziato, PhD.
Researchers and advocates say it's also vital that all kids (not just those with food allergies) are educated about the severity of food allergies since some may not realize that even a tiny amount of the food can cause a dangerous reaction. The same goes for adults.
"I would advise parents to deeply educate their school community about food allergies if there isn't enough support or understanding," says Ruzzamenti, who says she's thankful her son's school community is supportive and accommodating. "While educators and other parents might know the basics of food allergies, seeing the terror on your face when you explain the result of exposure can be an important experience for them to gain a true understanding and make sure that the kids understand the severity as well."
It's also a sad reality that kids with food allergies need to be prepared in case bullying happens. A report published last year in the journal Pediatrics cites food allergy bullying as an "area of emphasis" for pediatricians, who should be aware of the increased risk of bullying when treating their patients with food allergies.
Ruzzamenti said her son's experience, which was fortunately an isolated event, was a moment of learning for their whole family. "My husband and I were both furious about the incident, even though we had talked about the possibility of this happening to him some day," she remembers. "As we calmed down, we realized that it was a great opportunity to talk about how he should react so he can be better prepared. We told him that he needed to be brave even though he feels scared and wants to cry, that a bully is hoping for just that reaction and we practiced some things he could say to the child before immediately notifying an adult."
The group FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) has created an anti-bullying campaign called "It's No Joke" to increase awareness of the dangers of food allergy bullying. You can see their PSA and get free resources here.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.