Is Your Kid Sick or Just Faking It?
Cold and flu season is upon us, but is your child really sick? 4 tips for suspicious parents.
3. Get to the Bottom of the Problem -- If There Is One continued...
Mazyck recalls a student in a school where she worked who would begin to
feel sick at the same time day after day. She discovered it was always right
before math class and linked the symptoms to anxiety.
This is a case of psychological problems leading to physical symptoms, says
Barry Anton, PhD, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Rainier
Behavioral Health and professor of psychology at the University of Puget Sound
in Tacoma, Wash. Faking becomes "malingering," he says. "Malingering is defined
as assuming a sick role to avoid something."
The child in this case may not even be aware that the psychological problems
led to the physical ones, Anton says. "The pain is real, the cause is
psychological," he says.
These scenarios are more common, he says, in younger children who haven't
yet learned to verbalize their emotional feelings. "As they get older, they
have better coping skills," he says, and are better able to talk about their
anxiety and other problems instead of having it manifest in pain.
Depression might be another underlying reason for your child to fake
illness, Anton says. "It allows you to withdraw."
4. Decide if You're Contributing to the Problem
Children in "high achieving" families whose parents have very high
expectations often have high anxiety levels, Anton finds. "They may be much
more likely to fake it."
Children from "chaotic and disorganized families" in which the parents
themselves may complain about physical symptoms due to psychological stresses
are also more likely to fake it, he finds. They are modeling their behavior
after their parents' behavior, begging off school when the stresses turn into
physical problems. "The pain is real," Anton says. So to call it faking isn't
quite accurate. "But they can't identify that the pain is from the
Often, Anton finds in his practice, the child's symptoms mimic those of the
parents. So if a mother complains of a bad headache the day before her salary
review, her son may do the same before an important math test.
If this sounds like your house, Anton says, consider getting professional
help -- for you and your child -- to learn to deal with the anxiety and
depression and other problems that may be leading to the physical symptoms.
If you are convinced the sick day request is just about playing hooky, don't
"reinforce" sick behavior, Anton says. What's reinforcement? "When you go in
and say, 'Here's some chicken soup, let's turn on your favorite TV show," that
makes staying home look way too good compared to school, and is likely to
encourage your child to try faking it again. If your child's really sick, the
chicken soup and love route is fine, he says, for that limited period of