In Bullies’ Hands, Nuts or Milk May Be a Weapon

By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS

Margaret Riegel

Any difference can set schoolchildren apart from their peers and potentially make them a target for bullying. But a severe food allergy is a unique vulnerability: It takes only one lunch or cupcake birthday party for other children to know which classmates cannot eat nuts, eggs, milk or even a trace of wheat. It can take longer for them to grasp how frightening it is to live with a life-threatening allergy.

Surprisingly, classmates may prey on this vulnerability, plotting to switch a child’s lunch to see if she gets sick, for example, or spitting milk at a child’s face and causing a swift anaphylactic reaction.

In a recent survey of 251 sets of parents and children with food allergies, published in Pediatrics in January, roughly a third of the children reported being bullied for their allergies. Parents knew about the threatening behavior only half the time.

Dr. Robert Wood, the director of pediatric allergy at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, gets “very frequent reports” of bullying from patients and their parents, he said. Just last week, one child’s face was touched with peanut butter, endangering the child. Typically, bullying is not as extreme, but the phenomenon has “been there the whole time,” he said.

Now, however, the issue is starting to earn attention. In May, Food Allergy Research and Education, a nonprofit group in McLean, Va., released a public service announcement highlighting the issue that featured a pupil lamenting the cafeteria as a “scary place.” It has more than 17,000 views on YouTube, has been shown on the CW network, and spurred dozens of parents to share unnerving anecdotes on the group’s Facebook page.

“Bullying should never be regarded as a rite of passage,” said John Lehr, the chief executive of the group. “It’s never a joke, but food allergy bullying is really not a joke because someone can be taken to the emergency room.”

Children’s National Medical Center in Washington just hired a psychologist to join its food allergy program, in part to help young patients who feel isolated or are being bullied. Dr. Hemant P. Sharma, the director of the program, said a third of the center’s patients report being bullied.

Every few months, a child recounts being force-fed an allergen, Dr. Sharma said, adding, “Even if it’s just a child who feels singled out because of their food allergy, it compounds the emotional burden.”

Indeed, some children with food allergies get distressed or anxious. Dr. Wood routinely sends children to a psychologist “because they won’t touch a doorknob or use a bathroom, because they fear inadvertent exposure to their allergen.”

The Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan not only offers children and parents counseling after bullying, but will call principals on a patient’s behalf.
click to view more