Any children who stand apart from their peers for whatever reason — they look, speak, or dress a little differently — have a greater likelihood of being bullied, and now it turns out that even common health problems like food allergies can set children up to be victimized.
Of course, bullies need no reason at all to pick on a weaker child, but a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics finds that the prevalence is particularly high in children who have food allergies and that nearly a third of them are teased and taunted for their allergies, sometimes having offending foods thrown at them. Allergists at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City conducted surveys of more than 250 families and found that parents frequently didn't know that their child was suffering such targeted victimization.
Another study published in the same journal added to the evidence that overweight children also get teased and threatened more than their peers, with those at the highest end of the weight spectrum getting the most punishing treatment. Nearly two-thirds of 361 overweight teens who attended weight loss camps reported that they'd been bullied for their weight for up to five years — sometimes even after they reached a healthy weight.
Coaches, parents, and gym teachers contributed to the bullying, possibly thinking they might "motivate" a child to move more or avoid the vending machine if they delivered a harsh lecture.
Both of these studies were conducted within the past year or two, after many states like Massachusetts implemented tough new anti-bullying policies in schools.
So why aren't we seeing more progress?
"The attention being paid to bullying is still very new," said Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital who wrote an editorial that accompanied the studies. "These studies are disappointing but not surprising; they indicate we still have a lot of work to do."
Schuster would like to see bullying fall as far out of favor as sexual harassment has. Nowadays everyone from grade school through corporate boardrooms has a keen sense that it's not acceptable to steal a kiss or pinch from an unwitting schoolmate or colleague.
A growing body of research suggests how detrimental bullying can be, raising a teen's likelihood for depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and, in rare cases, violent acts. Psychologists have found that relentless teasing that occurs over years can cause children to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder that lingers well into adulthood.
Unfortunately, with all that's known about how damaging bullying can be, very few studies have established effective solutions that can be implemented in schools, in online chat rooms, and on playgrounds.
"We need a lot more research on what's really effective in specific contexts like with, say, food allergies, and in specific communities," Schuster said. "Parents have a role to play here. They can be very helpful in terms of alerting school officials and teachers about what's happening."
With regard to food allergies, schools should adopt general policies eliminating a particular food from the lunchroom or classrooms without singling out a particular child who's allergic.
Parents of non-allergic kids could benefit from a little education to understand how severe some food allergies can be — to the point that a child may have a life-threatening reaction simply by touching a doorknob containing trace amounts of the food. Relaying the urgency of the school-wide precautions to their child, rather than scorn, might help prevent bullying at school, Schuster said.
Parents can also help reverse weight-related discrimination by sending the message to their children that obesity is just like any other health condition that some children struggle with, and others shouldn't be judged, or blamed for poor dietary or exercise habits.
"Grown-ups need to do their part by proper role modeling," Schuster said. "Avoid derogatory comments about someone else based on their weight or some other perceived flaw." Parents should also give children the skills they need to deal with bullying either as a bystander or a victim, advising them to tell a parent or school official, to support whoever is being bullied, and to avoid standing in a group when someone is being bullied.
Check out stopbullying.gov for more information and resources on combating bullying.