Just to be clear, I'm not talking about bullying, but teasing. Bullying is not to be tolerated. No way, no how. But teasing happens. It's part of life. I'm still teased by adults because of my 6' height. Seriously. So of course I'm going to expect that, like most kids who exhibit any kind of "difference," my daughter has had to deal with some teasing about her food allergy. Sometimes the comments have been provoked by the fact that she was eating something different at a birthday party; other times, kids harp on the fact that a particular food didn't have nuts as an ingredient, so why wouldn't she just eat it?? (I would have given anything to see my then 7-year-old first grader try to explain cross-contact to her classmates--which she did, many times. Good girl.)
Teasing has eased up quite a bit as my daughter has gotten older and with so many kids in her grade having various food allergies as well as other medical conditions, she is not such a novelty anymore. In fact, many times kids have been incredibly compassionate. In third grade, one boy even invited my daughter to "tag" him in a game because he knew she had asthma symptoms from her seasonal allergies and couldn't run as fast as usual. (What a guy! He can take her to the prom as far as I'm concerned.)
Even with these improvements, teasing still persists. At a friend's house recently, my daughter stood by the refrigerator with her friend, getting drinks. Her friend's older sister told my daughter: "Everything in there has peanuts in it. April Fool!" My apparently unflappable daughter took it in stride at the time and then told me about it later.
I tend to not get very upset at these incidents, mainly because any type of difference is cause for kids to tease others. Unfortunately this is part of growing up and as long as no one is putting unsafe foods in my daughter's face or threatening her, I tell her to shrug it off. And happily, she does.
As kids get into school or daycare settings, they may become objects of occasional teasing. Of course, serious incidents should be reported to the teachers, but what about thoughtless, offhand comments? Here are some tips to help your child deal:
Explain that the other child likely doesn't understand. Most of the teasing my child has experienced has stemmed from ignorance about food allergies. Tell your child to calmly state that "I can't eat the cake because I could get very sick. If you want to know more, ask my Mom." This actually works--most young kids won't want to be "busted" by a parent!
Let your child know that everyone gets teased sometimes. Any difference in children is duly noted by the others. Explain to your child that everyone has something about them that's different and that they are not alone. People are unique, so even the "teasers" may have a problem your child just doesn't know about.
Encourage their snappy comebacks, but don't let kids tease back. My daughter sometimes would ask kids "what's the big deal?" or "how would you like it?" when they teased her about her food allergies. However, I told her not to pick on them in return. Two wrongs don't make a right and all of that. When kids speak up for themselves, others usually think twice about saying something next time. And speaking up seems to boost self-esteem as well.
Help them laugh it off. I remember when a girl in my daughter's second grade class said things like "Are you allergic to pencils?" I would tell my daughter: "Boy, that was a silly comment. Who's allergic to pencils?? She must not have had anything better to say!" and we laughed it off together. By dissecting the teaser's comments, I think I helped my child to see the remark for what it was: pointless, silly and in the end--harmless.
By helping our food-allergic kids see that teasing is a part of life for everyone, they can learn how to feel confident and not ashamed for something that is only one part of who they are.