and Schoolyard Violence
by Deena Mandell, MSW
From AAIA Quarterly, A publication of the Allergy/Asthma Information
Assn., Vol. 31, Fall 1995.
Recently, disturbing reports have been received
at AAIA of children with life-threatening food allergies being terrorized
by "bullies". The latter threaten to harm them with that most
feared of weapons -- the allergenic food. Parents have asked
how they can deal with such situations.
There are several important elements to be considered.
One is the larger social problem of schoolyard and neighbourhood
bullies in general; a second is the issue of whether/how the problem
is different for an allergic child than for any other child; the
third is how to respond constructively.
There is evidence that the problem of bullying
-- that is, of children victimizing other children -- is a widespread
and serious one in many Western countries. Many explanations
have been proffered and each of us may have our own personal theory
about what contributes to children acting aggressively towards others
less powerful than themselves. What we do know, however, is
that by definition, the victimized child is likely to be a less
powerful child than others or in some way marginalized. In
other words, something about the "victim" has been perceived as
making him or her a good "target", i.e., he seems easy to push around.
This statement is in no way meant to suggest that the child deserves
to be mistreated or that (s)he brought it on him or herself.
It suggests, rather, that if a child is less powerful in some way,
such as being small, fearful, known to avoid fighting, or lacking
in social support for some reason, etc., (s)he may be particularly
vulnerable to someone who seeks to dominate others.
Particular danger for allergic children
It is painful, indeed, to think of a child who
has been carefully trained to live cautiously and responsibly for
his/her own protection at the mercy of someone who abuses the potential
threat of an allergenic food or other substance. In an anaphylactic
child, the anxiety aroused by this danger suddenly beyond his/her
own control must be very intense. This kind of situation is
quite different in a couple of important ways from more usual bullying
situations. Unlike a knife or other common weapon, the danger
inherent in the allergenic substance is unlikely to be fully comprehended
by the bully, who knows it strikes fear into the victim's heart,
but does not really grasp that this "weapon" could, in fact, kill.
Other weapons, after all, are dangerous to everyone and we all fear
them, including the bully. The concern is that it could conceivably
be much easier for the bully to actually follow through with his/her
threats when the consequences are not understood, the dangerous
substance is not frightening to look at and inflicts no visible
damage, nor is it even forbidden to carry in the schoolyard.
What to do
Bullying is an exercise in power. Help
to "empower" your child, who has been made to feel helpless and
without recourse. Here are several suggestions of steps you
might take to try to alleviate the situation and protect your child.
Allergy/Asthma Information Association,
- If the bully is a student at your child's
school, approach school officials and enlist their aid in
dealing with the situation. It is important that school personnel
understanding that this situation is more than just anxiety-producing
for your child. They will need your help to understand that
the situation actually could, even inadvertently, become a matter
of life and death. (Ask your local AAIA Activator or your
physician to help get your point across, if needed). You
might find it helpful to discuss the matter with your local police
department. Often there is a special officer or department
which deals with youngsters, and they usually see preventive intervention
as quite appropriate. Police often prefer to "set
kids straight" in an informal, non-threatening way before a problem
is full-blown rather than sit back until you have an actual offense
to report. Everyone (the bully included) must be helped
to understand that this represents a potential crime and a serious
potential threat to your child's safety, not the complaint of
overprotective parents or a wimpy kid.
- Develop an avoidance plan with your child.
You have previously worked together on ways of avoiding the allergenic
substance; now you must work on a plan for avoiding the bully.
This may mean a new route home from school, a "buddy" system in
the schoolyard (preferably with the school's support), an older
neighbour or friend to walk home with, etc. You might wish
to equip your child with one of those extremely shrill sportsman's
whistles that are now sold for the use of safety conscious urbanites.
Be creative! In addition, if you can help your child identify
anything else that "signals" to the bully that (s)he is a vulnerable
person (as described above), there may be something that can be
done to alter that presentation of self. The child's teacher
or school counselor may be helpful in this regard.
- Consider approaching the bully's parents
and enlisting their help. You would be wise to use a
non-confrontational approach, and emphasize that you are certain
they would not wish to see their child seriously harm another.
You will need to educate them about the dangers involved and try
to get them to help their child see how dangerous the situation
could become. The support of the school or a youth officer
would be especially helpful in getting the family's attention
if they are not likely to be immediately responsive.
- Enroll your child in a a self-defense
course geared to children. The skills learned have obvious
practical utility. Equally important, however, the fact
that knowing (s)he can protect him/herself reduces the fear of
an attack and increases self-esteem. Since a child's self-esteem
is as much at stake here as his/her physical safety this aspect
of helping should not be underestimated.
- Help your child to understand that the
bullying is an expression of the bully's problem, not your child's.
Young children have a tendency to internalize mistreatment; that
is, to feel that they have caused or deserved it in some way.
- Develop a contingency plan.
If all else fails and your child is attacked with the allergenic
food, (s)he must know exactly what to do. Perhaps the Epipen
needs to be carried at recess or whenever the bully is likely
to be around. Again, a whistle may be helpful, to draw the
attention of others for help. Just as you would prepare
for the eventuality of an allergic reaction anywhere else, --
or, for that matter, an escape plan for a fire, "street-proofing",etc.
-- you must prepare for this potential emergency. Your child
will feel more secure if it is absolutely clear what should be
done and if medication is immediately available.
- As a worried parent, you will benefit
from the support of others. Discuss the problem with people
in your community, who may have a helpful perspective or useful
suggestions. If others find if difficult to appreciate the
danger which concerns you, talk to fellow AAIA members.
Genuine understanding, emotional support and helpful information
are invaluable during stressful times.
Box 100, Toronto, Ontario M9W 5K9
Phone (416) 679-9521 or 1-800-611-7011 Fax: (416) 679-9524
Web site: http://www.aaia.ca
of Use: The information
on this site does not constitute medical advice and is for your
general information only. We cannot be held responsible for anything
you could possibly do or say because of information on this site.
Consult your family physician or allergist for specific questions
This article courtesy of the Allergy/Asthma
Information Association -- Association d'information sur l'allergie
et l'asthme at www.aaia.ca and the Calgary Allergy Network web site
at www.calgaryallergy.ca. May be reproduced for educational, non-profit
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