Children often complain of stomach aches and vague symptoms like “not feeling well.” When there isn’t a fever, a rash, an x-ray or other “evidence” of illness, parents often feel confused. Is the child really sick of just “faking it?” Should the parent allow the child to stay home from school or send him off whining and crying?
What would cause a child to “fake illness?” While some parents may feel that laziness, lack of motivation or some other attitude problem may be the culprit, in fact there are often more serious reasons lurking beneath the surface.
If your child frequently complains of illness that the doctor cannot substantiate, consider the following tips:
Some children feel unsafe or uncomfortable at school. The discomfort can be triggered by the teacher, classmates or children in the schoolyard. How does a parent find out if the child is feeling frightened? Try not to ask directly. For instance, try not to ask, “Is someone frightening you?” Instead, use bibliotherapy – the reading of stories (or telling stories) about kids who are having trouble with friends, bullies or teachers. As you are reading, share some of your own memories of difficult times in your own childhood school days. In that context, you can ask the child “did something like this ever happen to you?” This approach eases the child, allowing the youngster to learn first that social difficulties are normal and common. This helps him to relax, talk and listen better, giving you more opportunity to be helpful.
If the child does end up sharing a social problem, try to stay very calm and quiet no matter what you are hearing. This helps the child feel safe enough to tell you the whole story and to continue to share with you. If the child needs your help or intervention, do all problem-solving calmly and slowly. Take time to seek advice from your spouse, the teacher or a professional – whoever is appropriate. Work out a plan with the child and/or with a professional. Sometimes a formal plan isn’t necessary – just giving the child the opportunity to talk about his problem can be helpful. Often the child can work out his own solutions when a parent just listens compassionately, without jumping in with advice.
If you have an exceptionally bright child, then he or she may not be interested with the current lessons and is painfully bored at school. On the other hand, school can sometimes be too challenging for a child, leaving the youngster feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Sometimes a child just needs a day off – a mental health day – after a period of hard work, academic stress or general life pressure. In such a case, just give your child an occasional day off and tell him directly that he doesn’t need to be sick. Just arrange a break once every couple of months or so. If you’re not sure whether schoolwork is the issue, a psycho-educational assessment can pinpoint the problem and offer solutions. Sometimes, it’s as simple as ordering glasses for a child who can’t see the board or read the instructions.
Sometimes a child is emotionally distressed by stress in the home. The child wants to stay home either because he is too distressed and distracted by what’s happening in the family (conflict, violence, separation, divorce, illness, dying, etc.), or because he wants to keep the home safe himself by “holding down the fort.” Sometimes the child is trying to divert attention from a family crisis by being “sick” and needy; if everyone has to take care of him, then they won’t be able to die/fight/dissolve or otherwise engage in some destructive process.
If you suspect that the child is reacting to family problems, make sure you are addressing the family problems. Enlist the help of a professional family therapist – your child’s behavior is a real cry for help. Make sure that the adults get the help they need and that the child has someone to talk to.
Hidden Health Problems
Just because the family doctor can’t find a problem, doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Consider consulting a naturopath or alternative health practitioner to explore the aches and pains more fully. There are many different paradigms and healing options out there – you might discover one that really helps. Especially when stomach problems are reported, keep in mind that stress is NOT always the problem. Hidden food intolerances can cause lots of physical, emotional and even behavioral issues.