Sadly, kids living with food allergies experience bullying more often, according to pediatricians. They receive different treatment from classmates, such as exclusion from social events because of their allergies. Prior research confirms that children with food allergies get bullied more frequently than other students.

However, a new study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology reveals the extent of the problem. Researchers offered children who live with food allergies a multi-question assessment to better understand the magnitude of the issue.

For the questionnaire, children had to answer “yes” or “no” questions about food allergy-related bullying. 17% of them admitted to being bullied, harassed, or teased about their allergy. However, when they answered questions about other victimization behaviors, the number increased to 31%. Even more troubling, Children’s National Hospital researchers discovered that just 12% of parents knew about the bullying their children faced.

Bullying behaviors ranged from verbal harassment and criticism to more dangerous acts. Some students said that the bullies waved the allergen in their faces or knowingly placed it in their food. Researchers said that for children to receive help, it’s important to understand the size and scope of the problem. Gathering more information using questionnaires can help both researchers and parents get to the bottom of the issue.

According to Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of the Psychosocial Clinical and Research Program in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National and one of the study’s researchers:

“Food allergy-related bullying can have a negative impact on a child’s quality of life. By using a more comprehensive assessment, we found that children with food allergies were bullied more than originally reported and parents may be in the dark about it.”

Not only do children living with food allergies suffer, but the parents also do as well. They have to adapt to new ways of caring for their children, which requires an adaptation period. For the study, researchers also wanted to see how an intervention using peer mentorship might help support these parents. Many of them report poor psychosocial outcomes due to their child’s life-threatening food allergies.

“The results of this study demonstrate a need for greater food allergy education and awareness of food allergy-related bullying among communities and schools where food allergy-related bullying is most likely to occur,” Herbert adds.

living with food allergies
Study shows that kids living with food allergies experience more bullying

For the study, researchers analyzed food allergy-related bullying among a diverse patient population. They took into account disagreements between parents and children and evaluated the questionnaires. The study included 121 children and primary caregivers who answered the assessments.

The children ranged in age from 9 to 15-years-old and received a diagnosis from an allergist. They all suffered from at least one of the most common eight IgE-mediated food allergies. These include peanut, tree nuts, cow’s milk, egg, wheat, soy, shellfish, and fish.

Among the 41 children who reported food allergy-related bullying:

  • 51% of children living with food allergies reported experiencing physical acts of bullying. This included allergens being waved in their face, thrown at them, or intentionally placed in food.
  • 66% reported bullying experiences classified as non-physical overt victimization acts. These include verbal teasing, remarks or criticisms about their allergy, and verbal threats or intimidation.
  • Eight reported relational bullyings, such as hearing rumors spread about them or people talking behind their back. In addition, some said classmates purposely ignored or excluded them because of their food allergies.

The researchers added that the bullies targeting kids living with food allergies included both classmates and other students. Most bullying occurred during school hours.

Parents of kids living with food allergies also face challenges

The study authors discovered that only 12% of parents reported that their child experienced bullying due to their food allergy. Among those parents, 93% said their child had informed them of the bullying. Some parents even said they had been teased or ridiculed as well due to worries about their child’s food allergy.

Herbert shared this:

“It’s important to find ways for children to open up about food allergy-related bullying. Asking additional specific questions about peer experiences during clinic appointments will hopefully get children and caregivers the help and support they need.”

The research authors added that a peer mentorship program to support parents of children recently diagnosed with food allergies could provide a solution. Parents who completed a 6-month peer mentorship program reported lower stress and a greater feeling of support. In addition, they felt more confident in managing their child’s food allergies and noticed positive changes in parenting behaviors. However, researchers will need to conduct future studies to determine how to scale this program for a large population.

Statistics about childhood food allergies in the United States

According to the CDC, food allergies affect around 8% of children in the United States. That equates to 1 in 13 children or about 2 students per classroom. Children living with food allergies have 2-4 times the likelihood of suffering from related health conditions like asthma and other allergies. In 2007, 29% of children with food allergies also had asthma, compared with 12% of children without food allergies.

From 1997 to 2007, the occurrence of food allergies increased 18% among children under age 18. Scientists cite a few possible reasons for the increase: less robust immune systems and lack of exposure to trigger foods. In other words, when you don’t eat certain foods, you don’t have antibodies to fight off allergies. Also, we have weakened immunity in general due to living in a modern, urban environment.

living with food allergies
Final thoughts on pediatricians warning that kids living with food allergies get bullied more often

A new study by Children’s National Hospital found that 31% of children experience bullying due to food allergies. They reported that classmates would treat them differently or exclude them from activities due to their allergies. Most of the students experienced verbal assault. However, others encountered physical acts of bullying, like someone putting allergens in their food.

Only 12% of parents even knew about the bullying their children faced. Researchers say the findings highlight the need to raise awareness about food allergies and related bullying in schools where it commonly occurs.