Dealing With the Social Stigma of Kids' Food Allergies


Jennifer Fink, RN, BSN

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It’s hard enough dealing with the medical and logistical aspects of food allergies: keeping track of epinephrine pens, managing allergist appointments, watching for symptoms and avoiding allergens. Having to deal with the (nearly unavoidable) social stigmas surrounding food allergies becomes an additional burden. Most people respect the needs of people with food allergies, but some … just don’t get it.

Here are some of the most common food allergy-related social stigmas, along with some strategies you can use to combat them.

Situation: Other people scoff at the need to avoid the allergen.

Jenn Casey distinctly remembers her neighbor’s disdain when she and her family returned home–to get her son’s EpiPen–shortly after leaving for a walk.

“He rolled his eyes and said, ‘It’s not like he’s going to eat a peanut on your walk!’” says Casey, a Georgia resident.

Anaphylaxis can be frightening, but being prepared will help you feel empowered to prevent a dangerous allergic reaction. Do you know all the facts?

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Nov 6, 2015

2018 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

Strategy: Educate.

Many people truly don’t understand how dangerous food allergies can be. So share accurate information with them. Explain that exposure to even a small amount of the allergen can potentially cause anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal.

Tell teachers and childcare providers the American Academy of Pediatrics says food allergens (things like peanut butter) shouldn’t be used in crafts or cooking projects at school because children have been harmed by such exposures. Let teachers, childcare providers and family members know that studies show antibacterial gel is not sufficient to remove allergen residue from the hands; soap and water, however, is extremely effective. Finally, be sure to explain the symptoms of anaphylaxis—including difficulty breathing; hives or other skin changes; and sudden swelling of the face, lips or throat—and the need for immediate treatment.

Situation: Your child is ostracized.

“Feeling left out and different” is a problem for kids with allergies. All too often, kids with food allergies are relegated to allergy-free tables or areas in the lunch room and excluded from sleepovers or other gatherings.

Strategy: Show how simple inclusion can be.

Your child’s need to avoid specific allergens does not negate his need for meaningful human contact. Ask school administrators and teachers to create “allergen-aware” tables in the cafeteria and classroom; such tables enable kids with food allergies to mingle with peers who are eating safe meals, instead of separating kids from their friends.

Take some time to educate your child’s friends, friends’ parents and extended family members about the specifics of your child’s allergy; sometimes, people exclude kids with food allergies because they don’t know how to deal with the allergy. You can also encourage your child to invite friends over to your house.

Situation: People tease your child—and sometimes threaten him or her with food.

Casey’s son is severely allergic to peanuts. When he was 7, a friend told him she’d smeared peanut butter on the doorknob he’d just used. (She hadn’t.) When he was 11, another friend poked him and said, “Peanut butter!” While the incidents may not have been fueled by malicious intent–Casey thinks the kids involved merely wanted to see how her son would react–both events were upsetting to her son.

Strategy: Speak up!

Nearly one-third of kids with food allergies report being bullied. Sometimes the bullying is verbal, but often it becomes physical. Whether the bullies “mean” to cause offense or not, their actions can cause physical and psychological harm.

Teach your child to stand up to bullies. Useful strategies include humor, confidence and firm words (“Stop.” “Leave me alone.”) Encourage your child to “buddy up” with an understanding friend in troublesome situations, such as lunch in the cafeteria. And let your child know it’s OK to talk about teasing and bullying. Kids should report at-school bullying to teachers; you should follow up if the school doesn’t take the situation seriously.

Situation: People doubt the seriousness of your child’s allergy.

“We have friends who openly doubt that my son is still allergic,” Casey says, “because he hasn’t had a reaction in so long.” And early on, even her parents questioned the seriousness of her son’s allergy.

Strategy: Be matter-of-fact.

When people express doubt, take a deep breath. The general public harbors a lot of misunderstandings about food allergies, so it’s likely their doubt reflects a lack of understanding. Avoid becoming defensive and emotional, and deliver accurate info in a matter-of-fact tone.

In fact, it’s helpful to maintain a calm manner as you deal with food allergies. Many well-meaning parents of children with food allergies become overprotective, and their desire to protect their child from any and all dangers can cause others to view them as unnecessarily controlling–and doubt the actual threat. Be open and honest regarding your child’s allergies, and let others know which exposures are and are not safe.

Most people want the best for your child, and are more than willing to accommodate the needs of people with food allergies. These strategies will help you counter the most common social stigmas. And if, despite your best efforts, someone still persists in misguided or misinformed behavior, remember that your child’s health and well-being is what’s ultimately the most important, and continue to do what works best for your family.

PHYSICIAN CONTRIBUTOR mother-talking-with-son-in-kitchen

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Oct 6, 2017

© 2018 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

  1. Emotional and Social Issues. Food Allergy Research & Education.
  2. Food Allergy Bullying: It’s Not a Joke. Food Allergy Research & Education.
  3. Food Allergies in Children. American Academy of Pediatrics.
  4. Clinical Report: Management of Food Allergy in the School Setting. American Academy of Pediatrics.
  5. Gupta, R., Kim, J., Barnathan, J., Amsden, L., Tummala, L., & Holl, J. (2008). Food allergy knowledge, attitudes and beliefs: Focus groups of parents, physicians and the general public. BMC Pediatrics, 8(1), 36. doi:10.1186/1471-2431-8-36!po=45.2381
  6. Shemesh, E., Annunziato, R., Ambrose, M., Ravid, N., Mullarkey, C., & Rubes, M. et al. (2012). Child and Parental Reports of Bullying in a Consecutive Sample of Children With Food Allergy. PEDIATRICS, 131(1), e10-e17. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-1180. 
  7.,. (2015). Food Allergy and Bullying: The Implications for Parents of Children with Food Allergies - Applied Psychology OPUS - NYU Steinhardt. Retrieved 18 August 2015, from

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