While some children are wonderful at embracing the diversity of their friends and classmates, others will highlight differences less kindly. Bullying can be a real worry for the parents of children with food allergies – often we are already anxious that they will be left out of social events or singled out at mealtimes, so the thought of them being on the receiving end of unkind remarks because of their allergy is upsetting.
When a group of organisations (Anaphylaxis.org, Allergy UK and the BSACI) launched their “Model policy for allergy management at school” (1) in October 2021, they said that 32% of children surveyed had reported being bullied due to food allergy at least once.
A European study in 2014 found that children and young people with food allergies were twice as likely to be bullied as those without (2). Specialist Clinical Nurse Dee Brown has supported numerous families with food allergies through her work as a specialist allergy nurse, she says, “Children with food allergy are more susceptible to bullying. Interestingly, it’s not necessarily related to their food allergy… It may be that they feel different, they feel more vulnerable.”
So how can you support your child and what is the best way to encourage a positive attitude from their friends?
While some children welcome a class discussion about their food allergy, others might prefer you to have a one-to-one chat with their friends and their parents. Either way, clearly explaining what your child’s food allergy is and demonstrating the ways in which it does and doesn’t impact on their life, can be helpful in heading off bullying. Also, if children are happy to talk about their food allergy and are confident about it, it becomes less likely other children will see it as something to be mean about.
Most of us find that we have friends who are great at supporting us and others who don’t always listen or show up when we need them. It’s the same for children. In any friendship group, it’s likely that some children will be better than others at advocating for your child, understanding their allergies and helping to keep them safe. Really nurture these relationships and embrace “allergy allies”.
Making space to talk
Clinical psychologist Dr Karen Murphy who is a specialist in allergy anxiety, says making space to talk to your child about their allergies is really important. If you gently ask open questions (rather than ones where your child can just give a “yes” or “no” answer), then you may learn more about how your child is coping socially and whether there are any issues with bullying.
What if my child is being bullied?
Bullying because of food allergies must be treated as seriously as any other type of bullying.
By law, all state schools must have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils (3). Teachers, pupils and parents should all be told about this. In addition, Section 100 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (4) aims to ensure that all children with medical conditions are properly supported.
How can you help support your child?
This is what Clinical psychologist, Dr Karen Murphy advises:
“Some children may find talking about their worries challenging but there are strategies that can help. One idea may be using a worry monster or making a worry box. Your child can write down the worries on a piece of paper and put them into the box or monster. Then schedule a time each week to discuss the worries together. In time, your child may find it easier to share their worries.
Role-playing scenarios that may occur at school can enable your child to build up their confidence about what they may say if someone says something unkind about their allergies and also who they can speak to if this occurs.
In addition to supporting the child directly, it is important to speak with the school. Sometimes bullying can be due to a lack of understanding of allergies and therefore a crucial step will be in educating other children, at age-appropriate level, both about allergies and the possible consequences if these are not taken seriously.”
Organisations that can offer support if your child is experiencing bullying include:
- Muraro et al. (2014b) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264050948_Comparison_of_bullying_of_food-allergic_versus_healthy_schoolchildren_in_Italy
- Statutory guidance on supporting pupils at school with medical conditions.
Reviewed November 2021
by Clinical Psychologist Dr Karen Murphy