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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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.
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3. Get to the Bottom of the Problem -- If There Is One

Once you've decided it's an act, try to figure out why. Although some kids are just feeling lazy, others may have a sense of entitlement, says Rohyans, especially during cold and flu season. "They expect they deserve a few days off because everyone else is sick," she tells WebMD.

But some kids who fake it have more serious underlying problems, not just laziness or mischief. A common reason for faking, says Mazyck, is being bullied at school. Faking becomes a practical avoidance strategy, she says.

Anxiety about a looming test or other challenge is a common reason to fake it. "It could be anxiety or fear, because of a test or some class that is hard for them," Mazyck says.

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."

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