Managing Food Allergy Bullies – An Interview with Kristen Kauke, Social Worker

Kristen Kauke is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who practices in IL.  She was diagnosed with food allergies as an adult and is the mother of two sons with anaphylaxis to peanuts, egg, milk and soy.  She is a regular presenter at Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network conferences across the country, and helps individuals cope with anxiety due to severe food allergies.

Kristen, there is such an emotional piece to food allergies. What situations of bullying do you hear children with food allergies share with you?

First, I think it’s important to differentiate between teasing, or “busting chops,” and bullying.  Teasing/busting chops happens frequently, especially among boys.  This is the condescending verbal banter that is a common way boys socialize, even among friends.  Examples might include sarcastic comments such as , “Your food looks sweet.”  Or put downs like “Why can’t you eat anything normal?  It’s like you’re allergic to everything!”  While these types of comments can sting, they aren’t necessarily bullying.

Bullying is the repetition of negative actions on the part of one or more persons against another who has difficulty defending themselves.  Bullying may be perpetrated in the following forms:  physical, verbal, social exclusion, false rumors, threats, or cyberbullying (texting, social media).  When it comes to food allergies, research tells us that most bullying episodes are in the form of verbal taunting.  This might sound like, “I wish you would die.  If I had a peanut right now, I’d throw it at you.”  Physical examples of bullying related to food allergies have included waving, throwing, or touching the victim or their “safe food” with the food allergen.

What can you offer to parents who find out their child has been bullied about food allergies?

First and foremost, parents can LISTEN to their child when they report bullying.  Thank them for sharing and acknowledge the difficulty of sharing such an emotional situation.  Second, acknowledge their feelings and experience.  This might sound like, “I imagine that felt terrible.  I can see how you would feel angry and sad.”  Finally, advise your child to react in the moment vs. later.

As a parent, we want to help our children become stronger and stand up to the bully. What is the best thing and the worst thing for parents to do?

The best thing parents can do to teach their child to react in the moment of verbal bullying is to teach and role play assertive language.  One simple, yet powerful framework is the “I message.”  I feel ____ because ____ and I need.  For example, “I feel mad and unsafe when you wave around peanuts and I need to you take my allergy seriously.”  Take turns acting out potential situations so your child gains comfort and understanding of speaking assertively in appropriate situations.

When it comes to physical bullying, the best thing parents can do is help their child report physical instances of bullying to the adult in charge, such as the school principal.  Parents are wise to keep records of incidents reported and outcome (or lack thereof).  Parents could welcome the idea of change of classroom when applicable.  They can also use the situation to help their child keep perspective on the powerful impact of our words and actions on others (i.e. siblings).  Finally, parents can keep in mind that children can be resilient even in painful situations.  When children learn to seek and accept help, they gain personal power.

Parents want to avoid addressing the parent of the offending child directly, or advising their child to try to make friends with the bully.  “Winning over” the other almost never works.

How about the child – what’s the best thing for he/she to do in the middle of being bullied? And afterward?

When it comes to teasing or “busting chops,”  a child can “tease the tease.”  For example, in response to the previous tease of “Why can’t you eat anything normal?  It’s like you’re allergic to everything,” a child might respond, “I know, right?!  Grrr food allergies.”

When it comes to verbal bullying however, a child should consider the following:  keep a low profile;  avoid the bully;  buddy up, especially in places that are less supervised such as the playground as bullies tend to prey on victims when they are alone and unprotected;  and hang with positive people – find places to belong.  When bullied, it is important for the child to NOT provoke the bully in the following ways:  tease the tease, make fun of the bully, or tattle on the bully for minor offenses, as these might just make the bully more aggressive and seek retaliation.

Regarding physical bullying, a child should always seek help from an adult.  For example, if there is a threat of physical harm or actual injury due to pinching, hitting, kicking, the child should report this to their parent, teacher, principal – anyone in charge who can take charge.

Whether the bullying is verbal or physical, block bullies from social media.

When should a parent seek professional help for their child? Are there certain behaviors to watch for?

Signs that a child’s stress due to bullying has overwhelmed their coping abilities would include:  decline in grades, difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much, avoidance of friends, loss of interest in former hobbies or lack of participation in activities, irritability, frequent physical complaints (tummy aches, headaches), and a significant change in mood that last longer than 2 weeks.  When a child demonstrates hindered coping, counseling should be considered to support their recovery.

As a parent, I’ve experienced being bullied by other parents in my son’s elementary school who didn’t understand food allergies. It’s very difficult to stand up to another parent, especially when I thought that some of these women were my friends. What can you offer to parents who are being bullied?

Parents can use the same coping techniques for both verbal and physical bullying as noted for the kids.

Such situations cause us grief – there is a loss of friendship and support we thought we could count on.  We experience disbelief, sadness, even anger.  However, in the face of such challenges, sometimes avoidance of the offending parent is the best option vs. continued pressure.  Sadly, sometimes a person just is not interested in the truth.  We need to realistically gauge the situation.  If our conversations and attempts to educate are going nowhere, we are wise to stop and wait it out.

It is said that we are only able to hear what we are ready to take in.  There is nothing we can do to speed this along for others.

Should a parent deal directly with the other parent? Should a school administrator or some other professional get involved? Or should the other parent’s behavior just be ignored?

In my opinion, it is best for parents to deal with school officials regarding instances that concern the health and safety of their child.  Parents should report instances of verbal or physical bullying.  They might consider giving their child’s teacher a “heads up” regarding teasing.

Parents can also know they can control other factors of their child’s environment:  they can avoid situations that tend to result in bullying episodes, they can choose to change teams, request that their teacher limit contact between kids, etc.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think it is helpful to remember that sometimes other’s resistance or anger is more about their own insecurities and fear of change.

We need to put the focus on regulating our own emotions vs. going to war.  We can put our energy into creating conversations with others who ARE open to education and awareness.  We can put our energy into supporting policy that brings more safety for our food allergic kids.  We might explore bringing screenings of bullying documentaries to our school districts/communities.  Some fantastic documentaries include, “Finding Kind” and “Bully.”

For our children, we can seek places for them to feel a sense of belonging – the park district, youth groups, community theater, volunteering, food allergy groups.

Thank you Kristen!