“Mommy, I don’t feel so good.”
It’s the phrase that no one wants to hear. Just as you’ve finished showering and getting dressed for work, slapped sandwiches together for bag lunches, fed the dog, and served breakfast, here comes a spanner in the works—for more than one reason. If your child is sick, well, you can’t help but be worried about him. But what if he’s faking it?
In a way, that’s worse because you have to go with your gut. Decide his symptoms don’t warrant staying home from school and you run the risk of worrying you made the wrong decision, all day long. Worst of all is if you make him go to school and then he returns home flushed and feverish. Then you really feel like the evil mommy from Hell.
Is Faking Illness Common?
As it turns out, faking sick is not really all that common. Most children aren’t capable of the type of true deception needed to fake illness. Experts suggest that only 10% of school children try to get out of school by playing sick. However, a child may interpret the discomfort of anxiety as illness.
That means that if your child isn’t a hotshot in math, for instance, math class or a test in math may be anxiety-producing. If your child is the target of bullying, that could also be the catalyst for a child’s morning claims of feeling unwell. Anything related to school that evokes unpleasant feelings can in fact, lead a child to plead illness with an accompanying request to stay home.
Your primary parenting task is to protect your child’s well being. That means that your first order of business will be to establish whether or not your child is really ill. If your child is ill, he may just need chicken soup, love, and rest. But sometimes a child needs to see a physician. It’s your job to spot the hallmarks of true illness and to provide appropriate care in case of illness. Here are some guidelines to distinguish between real illness and the simple desire to stay home from school:
1) Check for Signs of Illness
Start by taking your child’s temperature. Normal body temperature can range from between 97-99 degrees depending on time of day and other factors. Doctors deem anything over 100.4 degrees a significant fever.
If your child has the flu, it will be self-evident. In addition to fever and flushed cheeks, there may be sudden fatigue, headache, body aches, and a cough that fails to bring up sputum. A cold virus produces milder symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose. If your child complains of a sore throat, take a look—you can use a flashlight. Ask your child to say, “Ahhhhh,” while sticking her tongue out. If the tonsils look very red—almost bloody—sometimes with white spots, this is a sign of infection that requires a trip to the pediatrician.
2) Evidence of Fake Illness
The “symptoms” of fake illness come and go. Does your child have a hacking cough at 7:30 AM but laugh uproariously at a television cartoon 15 minutes later? Sick kids tend to drift in and out of sleep. Is your child sitting at the computer with no signs of fatigue even after a lengthy period of time? Rapid changes in behavior or typical behavior in a child claiming illness tend to suggest your child is not really ill.
Symptoms that are hard to explain or that migrate from one spot to another should be viewed with parental suspicion. The child that says, “My head and my right foot hurt,” and then an hour later states, “Now my elbow and my tummy hurt,” is probably anxious about school and not truly ill. Keep in mind that real illness can cause body aches which may appear to mimic the vagueness and migratory nature of fake symptoms.
3) Process of Elimination
In making your decision as to whether or not your child is really ill, you’ll want to look for a reason your child might want to miss school. If you know that your child is having issues with a friend or having a major test in a difficult subject, this can be factored into your decision about whether or not to keep your child home from school. It’s possible for a child to come down with the flu on the day of a major test, so you may have to wing it and go with your parental instincts.
4) Work Through the Problem
Sometimes a child just needs to work through whatever is bugging her. Draw your child out and see if you can get her to identify and describe her issue at school. Staying home may be your child’s way of avoiding a problem she doesn’t know how to resolve. If you can discuss the issue, you can lead her to finding her own solutions and coping measures or suggest some of your own.
Don’t Reward Avoidance
It can be tricky to spot the difference between real illness and faking it, but it’s important to make the effort. Showering your child with love, toys, and special treats when she plays sick may reinforce the desire to fake illness in the future. As a parent, you want to avoid rewarding a child’s behavior when she’s trying to avoid the classroom.