I had no idea that one-third of kids with food allergies experience bullying because of their allergies. Not surprisingly, victims don’t report their experiences about half the time, meaning the number of kids with food allergies who have been bullied is actually much higher. As mama to a kiddo with life-threatening peanut and tree-nut allergies, you can bet this stat caught my attention.
Working Toward Physical and Emotional Safety
When we first discovered my son’s allergies, we focused on keeping him safe. It wasn’t until he started kindergarten that bullying and inclusion came on my radar. His venture into elementary school meant no more nut-free environment! We met with the school nurses and devised a plan: his epipen and Benadryl would be kept in the office. He would sit at the allergy table during lunch.
I felt a bit like the allergy table was a social death sentence. How would my son make friends? Would he connect with his class? How would he feel about missing out on one of the most social of all school settings – the lunch table?
At the same time, of course, we were concerned for his physical safety. If he sat with his class, would he and his friends share lunches? What if there was peanut butter stuck on the table? What if kids tried to get him to eat peanut butter? Or, worse yet, tricked him into eating it?
Ultimately, we decided that where he sat was his choice. He chose the allergy table. Under all accounts, including his, it was the right one.
About a month into the year, I attended a school event. My son begged me to stay for lunch. He showed me the way to the allergy table, which was situated in a corner of the lunchroom. It was separated from all of the other lunch tables by a squirrelly line of children buying hot lunch. The line formed a physical barrier between my son and the rest of the kindergarteners.
Most of the kids looked at him, not in a malicious or teasing way, but more inquisitively: what made him “other”? No other children joined us until my son’s lunch period was ending. Had I not been there, he would have been alone and isolated.
I shooed him off to recess with his friends and then cried in my car.
Ways to Practice Inclusion
Since then, I’ve become more aware of situations or opportunities that make my son vulnerable to exclusion or bullying because of his food allergies. I’m nowhere near an expert on how to prevent these situations, but, based on our experiences I know some ways to be more inclusive:
Talk About It!
About 1 in 13 kids has a food allergy – that’s roughly 2 per classroom. Chances are, your kid knows someone with a food allergy. Try talking about it! He or she might want to know why kids sit at a different table, what happens when someone eats something they’re allergic to, how to treat an allergic reaction, or how food allergies are diagnosed (skin pricks and blood tests, no fun for anyone).
When you discuss food allergies, let your kids know (in a way you’re comfortable with) that some people’s bodies can’t tolerate certain foods, and eating those foods could be life threatening. It’s also important to discuss that people might need to carry medicine with them, and that often an ambulance is called after an allergic reaction.
Having these conversations can also help prepare your child in the event he or she sees someone experience an allergic reaction. And, the more our kids are aware of food allergies, the more normal they become and the less stigma that exists.
If your child has a friend with a food allergy, ask him or her where the friend sits. If the friend sits at an allergy table, consider asking if your child would like to join. Many schools allow kids who don’t have food allergies to sit at the allergy table, so long as their lunches are nut-free and okayed by a school employee. This can mean the world to a kiddo with allergies and foster strong friendships.
Lead by Example
If you’re scheduling a playdate or birthday party, please, please, please invite kids with food allergies – assuming you would invite them otherwise. Show your kids that it’s cool to accept their friends’ differences and include them in everyday activities.
If you’re going to be providing food, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Food allergies are really complicated and can change over time. Parents of kiddos with food allergies certainly don’t expect you to manage their kids’ allergies. So, absolve yourself of the responsibility of making food decisions and just ask what’s safe to serve.
You can also let the kids’ parents know that food will be present and ask them to provide an option for their children. Most parents are more than happy to send along safe food and will be glad you asked.
It can be terrifying to leave a child who has food allergies under someone else’s supervision or to bring them to events. If a parent asks you questions about what foods will be offered, whether you know how to use an epipen, or if you’d be remember to serve the snack from home, know that these questions are coming from a place of concern for the child. Parents just want to trust that their children are safe. Your understanding and patience with their questions will demonstrate that you take the allergy seriously.
Where my Teal Pumpkins at?
Lastly, there are lots of great ways to accommodate food allergies that don’t involve food at all! Birthdays and holidays are great opportunities to celebrate with trinkets and other non-food goodies. This Halloween, try participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project. All you need to do is provide non-food treats (you can provide candy, too, just in a separate bucket please!) and place a teal pumpkin on your porch.
The teal pumpkin tells families that your house is friendly for those with food allergies. Once you add finger lights, sticky skeleton hands, or slime to your Halloween stash, your house will be one of the hottest spots on the block! Pro tip: grab plenty of non-food goodies so ghosts and ghouls, regardless of allergies, can play together!