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Food Allergies: The New Bullying Threat?

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Today 8 percent of children have food allergies, most to peanuts, eggs, wheat, or milk. “It's true: Food allergies in children are increasing, especially in the last few years,” says Todd David Green, M.D., a pediatric food allergy specialist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. And 35 percent of kids 5 and up are being harassed because of the allergy, says a report in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “For example, they'd spit peanut butter on the water fountain or smear it on a lunch bag,” says Scott H. Sicherer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Reports like that are shocking, but they don't mean your child is doomed to be a target. Here's how you can arm her:

Script It: No matter how confident your child seems, “explain that kids can be mean because they don't get how dangerous allergies are,” says Lori Langer, a registered dietitian in Doylestown, PA, who specializes in food allergies. Role-play and equip your child with comebacks to jabs like “Why can't you eat like a normal person?” Your kiddo's best bet: making light, with replies such as “I know, right? These allergies are the worst!”

Run Interference: Go over concerns with the nurse, teacher, and principal before the year starts: lunchroom, snacktime, parties—and bullies. “Have the teacher send a letter home asking the food be kept out of the classroom,” says Langer. “Include a message of mutual respect for all the differences the kids have, and cite the school's anti-bullying policy.” And send enough snacks in to share: Kids don't feel special when they bring their own food to a party; they feel different.

Ok Snitching: Taunting is bad enough, but a threat is something else. “Tell your child that if she feels like she's in any danger—say, a classmate ‘jokes’ about swapping her cheese crackers for peanut butter ones when she's not looking—it's not her job to try to fight back,” says Dr. Sicherer. Teach her to walk away and tell a teacher, lunchroom aide, or another adult she trusts right then. Drill it into her: If she doesn't feel safe, it's not tattling.