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Health Articles
Faking Sick
(posted on Parents’ Press)
By Heather Larson


Is Your Child’s Illness Real or Imaginary?

For a kid who wants to look ill, there are numerous ways to fake it. My favorite ruse, compliments of the Internet, calls for dumping a can of vegetable soup in the toilet and telling Mom it’s vomit. Plenty of would-be truants have probably taken cues from the king of faking sick, Ferris Bueller of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Bueller had it down pat.

Kids do get sick, but sometimes they’d rather just have a free day from school. How can you tell what’s really going on?

Sometimes when your child wants to stay home, she may not have obvious symptoms, which makes it hard to tell if your child is actually sick or merely wants to escape school for a day. To better handle such situations, it’s a good idea to establish a standard for what being “ill” means in your family. Your family standard can be a certain temperature reading or any number of other symptoms, such as vomiting, no interest in TV or excessive sleeping.

“We all get colds and don’t feel perfect,” says Richard Horowitz, author of Family Centered Parenting: Your Guide for Growing Great Families. “Tell your child that you expect her to go to school even so.”

Here’s some advice for how to suss out the truth when your child doesn’t feel good.

First, consider the symptoms. If your child is lying on the couch in front of the TV but drifts in and out of sleep, that can be a real sign of sickness, says Denise Graham, a registered nurse in Antioch. A fever of 100.4 degrees or more, swollen lymph nodes, redness of the throat or tonsils, a dry hacking cough, extreme fatigue and a lack of appetite can also be sure signs of a physical problem.

But a stomachache, a headache or symptoms that keep moving around are more questionable. Graham’s daughter, for instance, often complained of stomach problems right before it was time to go to school, her mother says. The youngster’s stomach probably actually did hurt, but the real problem turned out to be bullying.

“She wasn’t lying; she just knew she didn’t want to go to school,” says Graham.

Why do kids want to stay home in the first place? More is expected of kids today than in any other time, Graham says. Everyone wants his child to get straight A’ s and excel at sports. Such pressure can be very stressful and exhausting for younger kids.

“Look at your child’s schedule and make sure she has time to just be a kid and play,” says Graham.

Any number of other issues may also cause your child to want to stay home. These include separation anxiety, a pending divorce, other major life changes at home, report card time, an upcoming test or even an assignment she doesn’t want to do because she fears failing at it. You may think your child is handling what’s happening at home quite well, but whatever it is might truly be bothering her.

It’s important to ask questions. When your child’s temperature hovers around normal, and you don’t detect any serious outward symptoms, you’ll need to delve deeper to get to the root of the problem, says Horowitz, also a nationally known educator.

Try the following questions: “Is there a reason you need to feel sick today?” Or, “It looks like you don’t want to go to school today; what’s going on?”

If your child says she doesn’t feel well once in a while, Horowitz says it’s OK to give her the benefit of the doubt and let her stay home. Or better yet, give her a way out by saying something like this: “I know you don’t feel well, but why don’t you go to school and give it a try. If you feel worse, have someone at the school call, and I will come pick you up.”

Chances are good that your child won’t get any worse and ask to come home.

But if faking sick becomes a pattern, persists and it’s used often to avoid school, you need to pay attention. Something could be going on at school — something related to other students, a teacher or even bullying.

“That’s when you need to kick into high gear, get in touch with the teacher and get to the bottom of the problem,” says Horowitz, who discusses overall strategies in his book. “It’s a red flag.”

Deal with it before it becomes a real issue, Horowitz says. These things build, and when your child becomes a teen, it will be even tougher to get her out of bed to go to school. You need to set a certain value structure and model as parents. Let your child see that you and your spouse go to work even though you may be feeling a little off. Whatever you do sets the tone for the rest of the family. If you call in “sick” to work, when you’re feeling fine, your child will follow your lead.

As a parent, you know better than anyone what makes your child tick, so with some careful observation, a little prying and setting consistent standards that warrant a sick day, you’ll be able to what’s right for you and your child when it comes to sick days and staying home from school.


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