August 9

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Parents grapple with children’s symptoms – real or exaggerated

Published on Wednesday, August 9, 2017

By: Annie Oeth

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of CONSULT, UMMC's monthly electronic newsletter. To have CONSULT, and more stories like this, delivered directly to your inbox, click here to subscribe.

It’s a question as old as classrooms and schoolchildren: Is this really a sick day?

Parents struggle every school year whether to believe their children’s complaints of all manner of ailments or to send a potentially contagious child to school, putting classmates at risk.


“That’s a tough one,” said Dr. Will Sorey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, “but sometimes the choice is pretty clear: If your child has fever, vomiting or diarrhea, they need to stay home.”

Runny noses aren’t as easy to call.

“A runny nose with a fever can mean your child needs to see a doctor,” Sorey said. “A runny nose by itself, though, may not be a problem. If every child with a runny nose stayed home from school, we wouldn’t be able to have school.”

A student exaggerating symptoms one morning in hopes of sipping chicken soup and watching TV isn’t a cause for concern by itself. That same student asking repeatedly for questionable sick days could be.

“Look for a pattern,” said Dr. David Elkin, professor of psychiatry and executive director of UMMC’s Center for the Advancement of Youth. “Those students who try to stay home over and over may be suffering from some form of anxiety.”


About one in five children deal with school-related anxieties, Elkin said. Worries about academic performance or being made fun of are two frequent causes.

If children seem to always be complaining of illnesses when it’s time to go to school, parents should ask questions, he said.

“Parents should ask their children to tell them about school and ask them if they are being picked on or bullied,” Elkin said. “When they answer, respond with, ‘Tell me more.’ Engage your children in conversation and be available to talk.”

If anxiety isn’t an issue, but dodging school might be, Elkin advised parents to try other strategies.

“If your child is trying to skip school but you think they’re able to go, suggest going to see the doctor,” he said. “If they say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’ then they are probably well enough to go to school.”

Another option is telling children who claim questionable symptoms that they can stay home from school, but they can’t watch TV, play video games or use their phones or tablets.

“Remove all the reasons why they might want to stay home instead of go to class, and tell them to stay to bed,” Elkin said.

The thought of sitting home in bed without any screen time, he said, may be enough to prompt a rapid recovery.

Missing a school day won’t make grades plummet, Elkin said, and both he and Sorey note that passing along ailments such as influenza and other viruses is a risk to be avoided.

“Use common sense,” Sorey said. “If your child looks ill and feels bad, keep them home.”