Food Allergy Bullying: Et tu, Brute?
Updated: Sep 28
My sister’s narrative of a cold winter afternoon in second grade has stuck with me…for it was not just a horrific experience for her, but is perhaps another story of “Cafeteria Mayhem” for many children with food allergies.
As she walked in for lunch with her best friend, little did she know that her trusted crony would leave her a victim of the “mean girl phenomena” or quite simply put - BULLYING!!
Back then, my sister was allergic to peanuts. That afternoon lunch started off somewhat atypical. Strangely, this friend, an otherwise allergy-friendly kid bought a PB&J sandwich. That was unusual and had my sister on the edge.
As the girl broke a piece of bread smeared in peanut butter, she turned towards my sister and said “I’m gonna force-feed you peanuts today!”
Frightened, my sister tried to move away, although still seated. This potentially lethal piece moved closer to her as she arched over. Her dilemma was how to protect herself, while conforming to the cafeteria rules of “sitting in your spot.”
Arguably, seven year olds don’t always make the best decisions. But, in their defense sometimes even if they know what is best for them the regimented, stereotypical rules in school do not give children the latitude to do something drastically different.
As my sister struggled to keep the enemy in peanuts away from her, there came a point where she couldn’t arch back any further.
She mustered courage, got up and walked straight to the School Counselor’s office, just outside the cafeteria. She recalls shaking like a leaf, nervous and frightened, not just about thwarting a severe allergic reaction, but also losing popularity with the other friends, for being that “weird kid” who goes to the counselor.
Eleven years later, I assume that her friend was impulsive and the act was not a contemplated, conscious attempt to harm my sister. But for someone with severe peanut allergy this was an ultimate in betrayal by her closest friend. This arrogance and a conspiracy of sorts, could be summed up in three words…“Et tu, Brute?”
I am glad my sister’s school counselor sorted things out. She rolled out the Restorative Justice program. It’s purpose was to:
give the bully a deeper understanding of the impact of her behavior
to provide her an opportunity to take responsibility for the harm she caused
to harness empathy
to work on a way to restore the damaged relationship.
After a verbal and written apology from the girl and a note to her family the incident was history as far as my sister was concerned.
Bullying incidents in a child with food allergies are likely to cause:
Distress and anxiety…While certainly real, these feelings are counterproductive. They impede problem solving.
Embarrassment and feelings of victimization…These feelings reinforce social isolation.
Resentment of the restrictions…In children while understandable, this can be toxic and it needs to be addressed.
Impede self-reliance…This is critical in developing a safe social environment in children with food allergies.
Therefore, in my mind a better approach would be for us to:
Design and implement a school-based Food Allergy Awareness Program, perhaps run by the PTA.
It is imperative that we use the support of the school counselor, cafeteria staff, and teachers.
At the Middle/High School level, an Allergy Advocate Club would also be a great idea.
Be proactive…be the change you wish to see in the world.