‘Ferris’ at 5?

How to tell if your child is playing sick

Lyss Stern’s son was only 5 years old when he started playing sick to get out of going to school. But the tot was no Ferris Bueller.

It was his ostensible clairvoyance that gave him away. At bedtime, he would announce, “Mommy, I know my throat is going to hurt in the morning so I can’t go to school.” His acting skills lagged behind his stage-setting skills.

However, it’s not always that obvious when kids play sick. Parents should allow an ill child to stay home and rest, but since this can disrupt their workday and childcare arrangements, they must learn to determine whether the child is truly sick and be aware that faking might mean there are problems at school.

“As another school year approaches, some of us (both parents and students) are excited and full of anticipation,” says Richard E. Frates, Jr., MD, a board-certified pediatrician and Polk County Medical Association member. Frates is Watson Clinic’s specialty spokesperson for the Department of Pediatrics.

Frates offers some ways for parents to encourage their children’s excitement about school.

“The day will flow better if we begin the night before with getting organized — the school supplies, the outfits, the meal plan, and early to bed for a good night’s rest,” he says. “In the morning, try to rise an extra 10 minutes ahead . . . be confident and encouraging. If the child complains of not feeling well, take those extra few minutes to examine the situation. Turn on the lights or brighten the room. Start by checking for fever, checking for rash. Is there a cough? The situation varies with age, but unless there is a definitive finding, plan on attending school as usual.”

Of course, a child who looks and acts truly ill should be seen by a doctor.

But when doubts arise, the following questions can help parents decide whether the child should be sent to school.

Are the symptoms consistent with common childhood ailments? Flu symptoms include fever, fatigue, body aches and a dry cough. A runny or stuffy nose could point to a milder cold.

Does the child have a fever? Pediatricians become concerned when the body temperature rises above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Abdominal pain is a common complaint in children,” Frates says. “Have the child try to produce a bowel movement (a warm drink may help); however plan on school. Encourage the child to ‘give it a try.’”

What does “opening wide” reveal? A child who complains of a sore throat may have some redness, but diseased tonsils usually look worse than parents imagine — like raw hamburger or a breeding ground for white mold.

Signs to take seriously are stiff neck, severe headache, fever, inability to rouse or speak clearly.

Are there tell-tale faking signs such as migrating pain (it starts in the stomach and moves to the ears); short-lived, vague or standby symptoms; and no desire or patience to sleep or lie still? “If this becomes a daily or otherwise frequent ritual, take time to ask about the school day,” Frates says. “What is the best part, and then the worst part of school? You will be impressed with the answers and then work to take care of the worst part. Ask specifically about friends, stresses, bullies, and anxieties.”

Does a pattern start to emerge? A child who is always “sick” on test days may need a tutor.

Is the child bored at school? Students who aren’t being challenged may lack interest.

Is the problem psychological or psychosomatic? Depressed kids may fake illness in order to withdraw. Anxious kids may indeed experience physical discomfort.

“Remember, be positive, even if we ourselves feel a bit overwhelmed,” Frates encourages. “Remind the child of all the rewards that await those who work hard and try everyday. It will pay off!”



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