Faked illness is the universal excuse, the unassailable lie, that allows folks to avoid the things they don’t want to do from the moment they get words to the moment they get sick for the last time. Kids learn early that faking illness buys time off of school. Their friends tell them or they learn by actually getting sick (schools are practically Petri dishes) and then recuperating at their own rate. For parents, being able to separate the grift from the real deal saves time and stress. Whether or not the kid ends up going to school, it’s better to know the truth. And, fortunately, there are some common tells.
First, though, the signs that it’s real: fever, vomiting, and severe diarrhea. Kids can’t really make this stuff up and most school districts (but not all) ask that children with these symptoms stay away, which is a reasonable request. “If there are obvious illness symptoms that you can’t ignore, such as a fever, runny, goopy nose, cough, or vomiting, that is a case where your child needs to stay home,” says Dr. Tanya Altmann, founder of Calabasas Pediatrics, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and author of Baby and Toddler Basics. “Sometimes, however, when kids say that they just don’t feel well, that can be more challenging to make that game-day decision – do you drop them off and just hope you don’t get the phone call from the school nurse?”
There might be no way to measure an aching tummy objectively, but observing a child over time, particularly when the child doesn’t know they’re being observed, can reveal a better picture of how the child’s truly feeling. Do they look sick? Do they act sick?
“While the kid is lying in bed, press around on their stomach, see if any area hurts them. Ask them to jump up and down. Ask them if they want their favorite food for breakfast,” instructs Altmann. “That can give an indication if this is truly an illness that’s coming on, or they just don’t want to go to school because they’d rather stay home. If they don’t want to eat their breakfast, or can’t jump up and down, or feel uncomfortable when you are pressing on their tummy, that’s a sign.”
Parents should clearly lay out the expected schedule for stay-at-home sick days: most of the day resting in bed; no electronic screens; no treats (healthy food only); no after-school activities; and an expectation that the parent at home still has work to do. Outlining a boring day may make kids rethink their plans to stay home. A sick day is not a day off, it’s a day in.
There is a gray area – kids who have an unidentifiable complaint and who don’t seem to be necessarily faking but seem to be just a little off. Parents may want to chance sending those kids to school and rely on the nurse if things get worse. A visit to the pediatrician can establish what’s wrong, though it can be hard to get a same-day appointment. Often the mere suggestion of a visit to the doctor can inspire a miraculous recovery in a malingerer.
Even if a child seems to be faking, parents should be kind and sympathetic to the presented symptoms. A child faking an illness may just need some attention. If a kid regularly tries to fake their way out of school, though, there might be something more happening than the occasional desire to have an easy day or watch TV. Sometimes classroom stress can make a kid try to fake a sick day.
“If your child is faking illness or injuries to avoid going to school on a regular basis, you want to make sure you take a look at what’s going in school to see if there’s something specifically there that he’s trying to avoid,” Altmann explains. “It might be bullying, it might be his friends just not being nice, it might be that the work’s too hard and he doesn’t want to get it done, or he just wants to be lazy and stay home.”
Kids will fake injuries, too, if not to get out of going to school, then to avoid PE or sports. Maybe they want the coveted ice pack. Maybe they are frustrated with not winning. Maybe they just aren’t athletic. Not every child takes to sports easily, and not every parent takes the time to teach them, either – very few dads are pro-athletes, but that doesn’t mean it is too late to establish good habits.
Injuries are easy to check; having a child stand on one foot and then the other and comparing the two, rotating a limb, or walking across the room will put a faker’s acting skills to the test. Surreptitiously observing a child who claims to be injured reveals even more. If the injury doesn’t seem to manifest during a birthday party or an afternoon on the trampoline, it’s a good bet that there is something else going. Of course, a detailed exam by the family pediatrician is the best way to get answers.
“If it is something that tends to be more consistent, then you may need to refer them to an orthopedist or look at physical therapy, but if it is more that they just don’t like exercising at school, because they are embarrassed – maybe they aren’t as good as other people – that’s something that you can get them help with,” explains Altmann. “Parents are very quick to get them math tutors or reading tutors, but some kids need help with exercise activities, too. So the parents need to go out to the field on the weekends and help their children be able to run a mile straight without stopping. Maybe they need someone to teach them to throw a ball or kick a ball. That’s something where parents need to get involved and give a child practice and encouragement and instruction because it isn’t something that always comes naturally to everybody.”