Is My Kid Faking It?
by Mary Follin and Kristi Crosson
THE PROBLEM: I’m beginning to worry about how often my son misrepresents things (he’s 9). I don’t mean he outright lies, but he’ll have these full-blown excuses about why he can’t do something, and I can’t tell if it’s real or not. The worst is when he gets ‘sick.’ He gets stomachaches, headaches, earaches—anything to get out of going to school, especially when they started going back in after a year of online. He’ll look miserable, but he gets a whole lot better as soon as I let him stay home. And of course, he COULD actually be sick, but I can’t tell when it’s real and when it isn’t. I’m getting this with homework (teacher never assigned it), low test scores (test was stuff the teacher didn’t cover), and other things. My husband gets mad at him when he starts making excuses, but I keep finding myself trying to believe him. I’m not sure where to go from here.
MARY SAYS: No two ways about it…the pandemic has been tough on our children. It sounds like your son might be acting out, possibly because he still feels weighed down by what he’s had to struggle through during the past year. While your son may have demonstrated these tendencies before, please be understanding if they appear to have gotten worse in recent months.
Which doesn’t mean you’ll want to ignore his tactics and hope they’ll simply go away. They won’t, especially if they work. Your husband may be onto something when he challenges your son’s excuses, but perhaps there is a kinder way to hold your son accountable, rather than resorting to anger.
Although you say you are having difficulty discerning when your son is telling the truth, perhaps you are purposefully not trying hard enough. Many parents are giving their children extra leeway in an effort to ease the stress their children have been under. (Sounds like a good idea to me!) That said, it’s okay to reset some of those old, pre-pandemic expectations, since many locales are opening up, and a lot of children are able to spend time with friends again. Life bounces back to ‘normal’ fairly quickly for kids when their environment once again feels safe.
When your son presents you with an excuse or an ailment, ask for specifics. Let him tell you the WHOLE story, every detail. A fake story will fall down pretty quickly when you start asking questions; kids have a tough time holding a consistent thread when left to their imaginations. If he ‘never got the homework assignment,’ tell him to fetch his assignment book and show you. If ‘the teacher didn’t cover a test topic,’ have him sit beside you while you write an email to said teacher, asking for clarification. A stomachache that requires him to stay home? What does it feel like? When did it start? How bad does it hurt, on a scale of 1-10? If he’s convincing enough, it’s either a day in bed (no video games) or a day in school. Which does he choose?
In other words, hold him accountable for what he tells you. Express to him that you’ve had doubts about his honesty lately, but you are willing to listen—and to trust. Remind him that his words are powerful, and that you expect him to stand behind what he says. If he’s having trouble facing up to his responsibilities, you’re there to help, not to condemn.
Once he knows you’re on his side, he will more likely share what’s really on his mind. Together, you can work through the issue, and with your help, he will learn to face what’s bothering him rather than hide behind excuses.
KRISTI SAYS: It’s great that you’re choosing to give your child the benefit of the doubt. I know he will appreciate that as he grows up. It’s hard to know when to believe our kids and let them stay home and when to make them just go anyway.
When I was younger there were days when I just didn’t feel great. I would have a headache, or stomachache, or I felt exhausted. It was nothing major most of the time, but I didn’t feel up to going to school. I remember trying to fake a fever so I could stay home. Fortunately, fever or not, my mom would let me stay home and rest most of the time.
There are many reasons why your child might not feel up to going to school. It doesn’t mean he’s faking it. Rather, he’s trying to communicate in the best way he knows how. As adults we can simply take a “mental health day” and call in to work. Kids don’t get that option. Somehow, they have to validate what they are feeling by pretending to be sick so they can get what they need.
Concluding a year of attending school online means your son could be experiencing just about anything that makes him want to stay home. Here are some reasons for you to consider:
Kids who are being bullied often experience stomachaches, headaches, and racing pulses. If your child is experiencing bullying, he may truly feel unwell. He may also be too afraid to communicate it to you, especially if the bullying is from a teacher. My kindergarten teacher was an abusive teacher. No lie, she eventually got caught and went to prison for it. Once, I watched her slam a child’s head against a window because he stepped out of line. It was terrifying to live in fear that I would be next.
I know I get tired sometimes as an adult. I may toss and turn at night, and I wake up feeling groggy. All I want to do is go back to bed. Children experience this, too. Bad dreams can wake them in the night and the next morning they are exhausted, don’t feel good, but they aren’t exactly sick.
Undiagnosed Food Sensitivities
Food allergies and food sensitivities can impact children in different ways. My son’s dairy allergy left him with extreme constipation, which caused stomachaches. (It took months to figure out what was going on.) Once we removed dairy products from his diet, he slept better, felt better, and had more energy. If you think this might be the case, take your son in for allergy testing with an experienced pediatric allergist.
Prefers Being at Home
After several months of being home, your son may simply like being at home more than he likes being at school. Home is a source of safety and comfort. Most children know they are loved and cared for at home. For some children, this year’s schooling at home was much more relaxed than many classrooms are right now.
While it may feel like he’s faking it, it’s more likely your son is using the only thing he knows to do to communicate to you. It’s important to ask gentle probing questions to help you learn more about what’s going on. You can start with, “I’ve noticed you haven’t been feeling well a lot lately. What’s it like at school? What makes it hard to feel up to going? Is there someone making you feel bad at school?” Open-ended questions are better than yes/no questions.
The issue with not wanting to do chores or homework sounds normal to me. My middle child makes excuses EVERY time I ask her to do something. There is always an excuse. Right now, I ask her to do one simple task at a time. If her room is messy, I give her a bag, and she starts with trash. If she needs to complete schoolwork, I ask her to do one thing and then she gets a break. When my kids were in public school, I would always check my son’s backpack for homework. Most of the time he would tell me he didn’t have any.
While I don’t think your son is faking it, I think that there is definitely more going on here. Keep believing him, which helps to build trust. Start asking gentle questions to discover what’s really underlying his desire to avoid school. You’ll get through this.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising small children (Kristi). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
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Kristi Crosson is a freelance writer, homeschooling mom of three children, and author of Healthy Mom Revolution, a blog that offers insights on healthy parenting.