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Recent studies have highlighted an important issue within the education sector—Allergy Bullying. The statistics surrounding this phenomenon reveal a distressing reality. According to research, around one-third of children with a food allergy have been subjected to bullying and harassment, highlighting their social vulnerability.
What’s more surprising perhaps is that only 52% of parents were aware of the bullying happening to their food-allergic children. These figures serve as a stark reminder for those in schools to increase awareness as well as support to those with a food allergy. Not only do sufferers have to deal with the allergy itself but also the potential psychological distress, which can impact their overall educational experience.
Given that 20% of serious food allergy reactions occur at school, it’s important for everyone to be aware of allergy bullying.
What is allergy bullying?
Allergy bullying is a distressing and harmful act that occurs when students with allergies become the intentional targets of exclusion, harassment or discriminatory actions owing to their allergic conditions. This type of bullying extends beyond typical teasing and involves actions that can directly compromise the safety, well-being and emotional health of those affected.
Components of allergy bullying
There are several characteristics that make up allergy bullying:
Allergy bullying is deliberate and purposeful and is aimed at those with allergies. It can manifest in various ways from verbal taunts to physical bullying, which all aim to isolate and marginalise the student.
In the context of allergy bullying, harassment refers to behaviours that create a hostile environment. This might mean spreading rumours, making derogatory comments or intentionally exposing the person to an allergen that puts their health at risk.
This means purposely leaving out or isolating an individual with allergies from group interactions or social activities. The exclusion can be subtle or overt but will contribute to feelings of alienation and isolation.
Examples of allergy bullying
Bullying takes on various forms and an individual’s experience is unique. Here are some examples of what constitutes allergy bullying:
- Verbal taunts: this could be about the person’s allergies like making fun of their dietary requirements or belittling the severity of their condition.
- Food allergen exposure: this involves deliberately exposing the individual to the allergen either by contaminating their personal belongings or direct contact that puts the person at risk of an adverse reaction.
- Social exclusion: this involves purposely excluding the individual from parties or social gatherings due to their allergy. This fosters a sense of isolation and prevents an individual from being able to form connections with their peers.
- Online bullying: this involves bullying or harassment through digital platforms like social media and messaging apps. It might involve spreading misinformation about the allergies, creating an online hate group or sending hurtful messages.
- Mockery or ridicule: this involves mimicking symptoms, making light of their condition and minimising the importance of safety measures in place.
Why does allergy bullying happen?
Allergy bullying, like any bullying, has complex roots. There are several factors that cause the issue. These include misconceptions, ignorance and lack of empathy. Understanding the reasons behind bullying can help school leaders address and prevent it.
Misconceptions and lack of awareness
Allergy bullying can stem from a lack of understanding about the nature and seriousness of allergies. Pupils who are unaware of the potentially life-threatening consequences might be insensitive due to their lack of knowledge. There are also lots of misconceptions and myths about allergies.
Peer pressure and social dynamics
Sometimes, students engage in allergy bullying because they have a desire to fit in or gain approval from peers. There might also be a lack of empathy towards those with allergies due to a lack of personal experience and exposure. Individuals might not comprehend the risks and challenges associated with living with allergies, which can contribute to their dismissive attitude.
Lack of understanding about the severity
Many individuals who engage in allergy bullying might not grasp the potential severity of allergic reactions. Without this understanding, allergies might be trivialised or belittled. School leaders need to ensure their pupils understand the gravity of allergic reactions.
Lack of education
A lack of instruction about allergies within school can contribute to ignorance and misunderstandings. Schools play an important role in how allergies are understood in their establishment and need to ensure they’re covering allergy awareness and ensuring inclusion.
What are the impacts of allergy bullying?
Allergy bullying has profound consequences on the lives of its victims. It can leave immediate physical repercussions as well as emotional scars.
There are often short-term physical consequences with allergy bullying, including stress-related reactions that heighten sensitivities and cause hives as well as psychosomatic symptoms caused by emotional distress that manifests physically in the form of headaches or stomach aches, for example.
Besides short-term consequences, there are also long-term effects. Persistent exposure to allergy bullying can contribute to anxiety and depression. The fear of being targeted and the emotional toll of isolation can lead to mental health problems.
Allergy bullying can also cause fear about attending school as pupils don’t feel safe. They might be reluctant to participate or socialise.
The emotional toll might also mean that academic performance suffers. Victims can find it hard to concentrate, engage in class or complete work.
Real-life examples of allergy bullying
In 2014, a 12-year-old girl attended the emergency department with difficulties breathing. After investigation, it was revealed that her classmates had smeared peanut butter on one of her schoolbooks, which caused her to develop skin irritations immediately. She began wheezing and coughing later that day. She had been taunted with peanut products for months at school. As a result, she had low mood and anxiety as well as the breathing difficulties.
Another serious incident of allergy bullying happened in 2017. In this case, a young boy called Karanbir Cheema died following an incident at school where cheese had been flicked at him at break time by another pupil.
How can you spot allergy bullying?
Recognising allergy bullying requires a proactive approach and keen observation. Parents, teachers and peers all need to be on board. Being vigilant might mean a life is improved or even saved. Here are some indicators of allergy bullying:
A student who suddenly withdraws from social or extracurricular activities might highlight the presence of allergy bullying. Victims tend to isolate themselves to avoid being bullied further. They might even avoid specific areas like the cafeteria where they are worried about allergy bullying occurring.
A decline in academic performance is also another sign. Victims might find engaging in work or concentrating difficult.
Allergy bullying leads to social isolation. If a student who was once social becomes more isolated, it could be a red flag. Victims might also be deliberately excluded from parties or group activities by their peers. Schools should ensure they know to look out for signs of discomfort or distress in social situations, particularly when food is involved.
Specific language or actions
Hearing derogatory comments or teasing about allergies is a sign of allergy bullying. Though these could be one-off events, it’s important to be mindful that they might not be. Attempts to expose the person to allergens is a certain indication that allergy bullying is happening.
A noticeable increase in anxiety, signs of depression or expressions of fear about going to school could be linked to allergy bullying. Sudden mood changes and irritability, especially if they coincide with specific times or situations might indicate that bullying is happening.
How to prevent allergy bullying in schools
In order to ensure the safety of those with allergies, it’s important that schools work to prevent allergy bullying. Firstly, there needs to be awareness and education on allergies. This might mean that allergy education is directly taught to students, especially if the school has students with anaphylaxis. This could also cover the science of allergies, common allergens and how severe allergic reactions can be.
It is also important that this is taught regularly and revisited with awareness campaigns that highlight the importance of understanding and respecting students with allergies. School assemblies, newsletters and posters can help to disseminate information.
Inclusivity in classrooms and the wider school
There is a big push in general on inclusivity in schools and this needs to explicitly include allergy sufferers. Students should be taught to appreciate diversity, which includes health conditions and dietary needs. Classroom practices should also accommodate diverse needs, including allowing allergen-free snacks and allergy-friendly zones in the school.
Empathy building and communication
Schools should introduce activities that promote empathy. This could be in the form of role play about allergies. This might help students to understand the challenges faced by those suffering from food allergies. It can also help build a culture of compassion.
Where individuals are willing, schools should also encourage personal stories about allergies to be shared. This will help humanise the experience and dispel stereotypes.
It’s also important that schools facilitate open communication with parents and children with allergies to reassure them and ensure they are comfortable expressing their needs and advocating for their safety.
Creating allergy-friendly school policies
There should be clear and comprehensive policies within schools surrounding allergies. This will detail guidelines for allergen management as well as staff training and emergency response procedures.
School staff, including teachers, admin personnel and cafeteria staff, should be given appropriate training on allergens and the knowledge to identify, address and prevent allergy bullying. There should also be emergency protocols in place with staff well-versed in responding to allergic reactions quickly and effectively.
What to do if allergy bullying is suspected
If schools suspect a child of being bullied because of their allergies, it’s important to approach the situation with sensitivity. Often, children won’t want to disclose that they’re being bullied. They might feel embarrassment or shame or simply are worried things will get worse. However, there are also children out there who might not realise that what is happening to them is not normal.
If bullying is suspected, a member of school staff can ask gentle, probing questions to try and get to the bottom of their suspicions. Here are some example questions that could be asked:
- Who do you sit with at lunch?
- Do you find it easy to manage your allergies at school?
- Is everyone nice to you concerning your allergy?
- Do you think other people understand your allergy and what it means?
- Do you feel safe here?
It’s not just in schools
When the Peter Rabbit film came out in 2018, there were calls for a boycott due to a group of rabbits attacking a man with blackberries despite knowing that he was allergic to them. In one part, they even manage to shoot a blackberry into his mouth. Following this, the man, Tom McGregor, becomes ill and has to use his EpiPen. There are also occasions where Peter Rabbit mocks McGregor’s allergy, making light of it.
This led to a hashtag on social media #boycottpeterrabbit as well as petitions and warnings from allergy awareness groups.
The filmmakers and studio responded by saying they regretted not being more aware or sensitive to the problem.
Final thoughts on allergy bullying
The fight against allergy bullying requires a collective commitment from all. This is from educators, parents and children combined. It should aim to create a safe, understanding and inclusive environment within school. Addressing allergy bullying requires both preventative measures as well as a compassionate response to anyone affected. Teachers, school staff, children and peers need to be involved in creating a safe environment.
The foundation for the eradication of allergy bullying lies in awareness and education. When all pupils and staff understand the severity of allergies and their potential consequences, children with allergies will feel safer in school. There should also be serious consequences for anyone carrying out allergy bullying.