The Science of Feeling Sick

sok_ribbon.pngMy four-year-old has discovered the art of faking sick. It’s very innocent and rough around the edges still: he’ll smile as he tells me he’s very ill and needs to watch TV for another day, or that his tummy hurts so he can’t eat any more dinner, but dessert sounds good.

It’s not just deliberate pretending that parents have to navigate, though — it’s bigger than that. Toddler communication can be confusing when it comes to health and the body. For example, my son repeatedly insisted yesterday as we drove home from preschool that he “did not have a tummy ache. His tummy just felt achy.”

Simply put, it’s often hard to de-code our young kids’ language and get the straight story on whether or not they’re sick, and what their symptoms are. With this in mind, here are some ways to understand and help your little one when she says she’s feeling bad and you’re not sure how to proceed.

Monitor the “symptoms”
Little kids who aren’t truly under the weather can have mysteriously inconsistent symptoms: a headache … no, a sore stomach … no, a sore throat. Of course, some viruses will cause all those symptoms, so you can’t rule out true illness when your child’s symptoms are widespread. Still, you might want to re-assess if the symptoms are a constant moving target (your child points to his right foot as a source of discomfort and then later on it’s the left). If it’s a cold or flu you’re trying to rule out, take your child’s temperature for the facts (most pediatricians consider a fever to be significant if it’s over 100.4).

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Distract and watch
One of the best techniques for assessing a sickness is to momentarily distract and move on to another activity while you watch your kid’s behavior. Rather than grilling your child to get to the bottom of whether or not she’s truly sick, give a quick nod of empathy and then suggest drawing, playing a game, or simply moving on with the day. If she starts happily chirping while building a Lego tower, you put a snack beside her and she gobbles it up, or she forgets she’s “too tired to move” and runs out into the yard, maybe she’s not so sick after all.

Decode his language
When my son says he has a tummy ache, I usually ask him to describe it: Is it a yucky feeling, or a pain? Is it sharp, or like butterflies? This helps him get more specific, helps me track the stomachache, and give us ways to refer to different types of pain. You can also ask for a scale of pain from 1-10 so that your child has a way to tell you when it’s mild, moderate, and severe.

Address it directly
I tell my son that there are certain times it’s okay (and even fun) to trick me, but when it comes to his body and sickness, it’s not a good idea. I tell him it’s my job to help keep him healthy, so I need the right information. However you want to frame this with your child, impart the idea that parents need the straight scoop when it comes to symptoms so they can do their most important job of caretaking.

Consider the psychological, too
Remember that feeling sick doesn’t always mean your child has a physical ailment — psychological issues bubble to the surface as physical symptoms too. All kinds of social and emotional things can show up as body pains and sensations: anxiety about friends, separation from mom and dad, sadness or even excitement — all these are felt in the body. Think about how stress can make you feel, and remember that children are less savvy about emotions and don’t have sophisticated language to express them as accurately.

Find out the motivation
If you’ve got a potential sick-trickster on your hands, think about what the motivation might be and how you could address it. Most of the time our kids just don’t feel like leaving the house and ramping up again at school — in other words, the transition is what they’re trying to avoid. But sometimes, it’s more. Does your child want to stay home because she needs more time with you, or is she craving a break from busy schedules and constant rushing? Think about how to simplify life a bit — decline that birthday party invite on Saturday and spend the day doing puzzles on the floor at home together instead. If she’s trying to avoid a certain friend or social dynamic, see if you can talk to your child or her teacher to address it.

Of course, there’s no better way to get to the bottom of your child’s symptoms than to run things by your pediatrician. If you’re confused by her aches and pains, best to double-check them with a phone call or a visit to the doctor. That way you can be confident as to whether it’s time to tuck under a blanket with Popsicles and TV, or send her on her way to school.

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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