Dec. 24, 2012 -- Colorado Springs high school junior Morgan Smith can’t remember a time when he didn’t have life-threatening food allergies.
The 16-year-old had his first reaction to peanut butter at 9 months of age when he broke out in hives after touching his sister’s PBJ sandwich.
He had his first run-in with a peanut butter bully in first grade.
The classmate chased him around the playground during recess with a pack of peanut butter crackers saying he was going to kill him with them.
Morgan says he wasn’t exactly terrified, but he didn’t find the incident funny either because he knew even casual contact with the crackers could make him sick.
Food Allergy Bullies
His food allergies made him a target of another bully soon after that and again in middle school.
Now a new study from Mount Sinai Medical Center confirms that Morgan’s experience is far from unique.
Nearly 1 in 3 children who took part in a survey at the Center’s Jaffee Food Allergy Institute reported having been bullied, but nearly half of parents said they were not aware of the bullying. They also found that about a third of the children reported bullying especially because of their food allergies.
The survey also found that bullying was a bigger contributor to stress and reduced quality of life than food allergies themselves.
Food allergies are on the rise among children, up almost 20% in the U.S. in just over a decade, with 5% of children allergic to foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, and shellfish, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“We found that when parents knew about the bullying the children’s quality of life tended to be better, but about half the time parents didn’t know,” says researcher and pediatric psychiatrist Eyal Shemesh, MD. “And they often didn’t know about the most serious incidents.”
1 in 3 Kids With Allergies Bullied
The Mount Sinai researchers surveyed 251 children and their parents recruited from the Center’s food allergy center.
The parents and children were surveyed separately to discern whether the children had been bullied about food allergies or for other causes.
In all, 45% of the children and 36% of the parents reported that bullying had occurred, and 31% of children and 25% of parents reported that the bullying had included threats with food.
Close to 1 in 3 bullied children had been taunted with the food they were allergic to, 12% had been forced to touch it, and 10% had had it thrown at them. More than half of the incidents occurred at school.
The study was published online today in the journal Pediatrics.
Adults Bully, Too
Study co-author Scott Sicherer, MD, who is chief of the pediatric allergy division at Mount Sinai, says kids aren’t the only ones who bully children with food allergies.
Adults who don’t understand food allergies often added to the stresses of children who have them by singling them out, often in the school setting.
“They may say, 'We’re having a class party, but we can’t have this food or that food because of Billy’s allergies,'” he says.
Morgan Smith’s mom Nicole remembers the PTA meeting where a classmate’s mother announced that she was sick of all the nonsense about peanut allergies and ‘peanut free zones.’
“She said she was bringing peanut butter cookies for field day and she didn’t care what anybody thought about it,” Nicole Smith says. “I just sat back and watched as another parent whose son was in Cub Scouts with mine got up said ‘I can’t believe you would do something that would put other people’s children at risk.’ I didn’t have to say a word.”
Another incident involved a parent who insisted that her fifth grader’s mid-morning snack had to be a Snickers bar, even though all the classrooms were peanut-free.
“The principal told her if that was the case, she had to bring a note from her son’s doctor,” Smith says.
‘Speak Up, Don’t Suffer in Silence’
Smith says she has been fortunate to have school administrators who took food allergies seriously and a son whose personality allowed him to not only survive his early school years but thrive.
The Smiths have lived in the same neighborhood since Morgan was little and he is now friends with the two kids who bullied him in first grade.
He also speaks to younger children about bullying, telling them about the importance of not suffering in silence.
“Especially with food allergies, kids can be shy and antisocial,” he says. “But it is important to make one close friend or two or three. Having people behind you to stand up to a bully is important. When people stand with you the bullying stops.”