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Fake Illnesses May Signal Deeper Problem : Children: It’s not unusual for a youngster to pretend to be sick. But frequent complaints without symptoms need investigation.

THE HARTFORD COURANT

One recent Monday, young Brad Solomon told his mother that he was sick and could not go to his day-care center.

But he did not have a fever or a rash, his appetite was fine, and he had slept through the night.

Was he faking?

Probably.

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But did he really hurt?

Probably.

Brad’s mother, Esther Solomon, took him to the center that day with a note to his teachers that Brad had been complaining of feeling ill and that if there were any problems, to please call her.

The teachers took it upon themselves to talk to Brad, who eventually told them that another 3-year-old, Jeffrey, was picking on him, and he did not want to play with him.

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“I know there are days when I want to avoid work,” Solomon said, laughing. “Brad just has learned early one way to avoid facing a problem.”

Now that everyone knows Brad is afraid of Jeffrey, the teachers and parents can help, and Brad need not come down with Jeffrey-itis again.

It’s not unusual for a kid to fake an illness. (And, as the weather improves, it won’t be that unusual for adults to fake it. Who among us has not at least considered taking off that first glorious weekday for a day at the reservoir?)

But when a child complains of illness more than occasionally and there are no physical symptoms, that child might be saying something a little deeper is wrong. Maybe there is a bully waiting for him. Maybe she is overly nervous about a math test, or life in general.

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All they know is that their stomachs hurt.

Then it takes a sensitive and patient person--parent, teacher, friend--to ferret out the problem behind the complaint.

“You don’t want to deny children’s feelings,” said Carlota Schechter, University of Connecticut family-studies lecturer. “One of the most important things is to reflect back the child’s feelings and try in some way to understand where that feeling is coming from.”

“I think it’s helpful--especially with older children such as teen-agers--to say something like, ‘Your behavior seems to indicate there’s something bothering you that might be difficult for you to talk about,’ ” said John Wiedenheft, clinical director at Associated Counseling Professionals in Hartford.

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One of Wiedenheft’s psychology professors used to exhort his students: Ignore the words, watch the behavior. That advice works especially well in dealing with children, he said.

“Many people’s emotional responses get translated into physical symptoms,” he explained. “If a kid is terrified, a kid will throw up.”

Recently, one of Carrie Bartolotta’s 3-year-old charges said she had a headache. Bartolotta is director of Bright Horizons Children’s Center in Middletown.

“I didn’t know if she even knew what a headache was, but I called her mother, and her mother said, ‘That’s funny. I had a headache last night,’ ” Bartolotta said. “I went back to the classroom and said, ‘We’re going to relax for a little while and read a story.’ ”

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After she’d read a story, the child asked Bartolotta to call her father because she wanted both parents to pick her up at the end of the day.

“Basically, the father had to work some overtime, and she felt like she needed to have both their attention for a short time,” Bartolotta said.

“Especially with preschool children, there’s a lot of little things going on in their lives,” she added. “It’s important to give them a little attention.”

Solomon said she and her son’s day-care teachers have talked about what they can do to improve relations between Brad and his bully, and that alone seems to have helped her son.

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“We don’t have any special formulas for him, but I think the fact that we all acknowledged with him that there was a problem took maybe 80% of the pressure off of him,” she said.

Of course, there may be times when a child just doesn’t want to put out an effort and may fake an illness--not to avoid a test or a confrontation at school, but to relax and be lazy. When Wiedenheft tried that as a kid, he said, his mother had an instant cure.

“She said, ‘Well, if you’re that sick, you have to stay in bed all day,’ ” he said. “In that case, I got up and went to school. That pretty much killed it for me. I wanted to go out and play.”

If the problem persists, Wiedenheft suggests calling an adult who is close to the child, such as a school guidance counselor--if the child is school age--or a member of the clergy, if the child is attached to his priest, minister or rabbi.

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The purpose is not to browbeat a child into sharing his feelings, but to let him know that there are adults interested in what the child has to say, Wiedenheft said.

“I’ve had so many adults say to me, ‘I just wish my parents would have said to me, you can come to me and talk about anything.’ A lot of kids, especially teen-agers, are really afraid to talk to their parents,” Wiedenheft said. “Many times, we’re the parent, and we love this kid. This is our flesh and blood, but they tell us something we don’t want to hear, and we plow right down their throats.”


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