QUESTION: My 6 year old son says he has
a headache or stomachache and asks to be taken to the doctor whenever
he has a job he doesn't want to do or when he wants some extra attention.
I'm not sure how to react to this. I don't want to reinforce his opinion
that faking illness is a good way to get what you want, but I'd hate
it if he actually turned out to be sick at one point and I didn't believe
him. How should I react when he does this?
ANSWER: Consult your pediatrician
and screen for any problems which might cause your son to have the physical
symptoms he complains about to you. You can take him seriously and reinforce
that he still needs to accomplish certain things if there truly are
no physical conditions that prevent him from applying himself to his
It is possible that your son is testing your limits
in some way. Trust your instincts to tell you when he is trying to
get out of doing something that requires effort and when he is truly
sick. The danger is that he will really condition himself to express
anxiety through somatic complaints which can also become real physical
distress. Naturally this would be problematic for him, as he would
use physical symptoms to run away from solving problems. And his self-esteem
would suffer, causing him further motivation to avoid rather than
Your son is old enough to understand your concern
for his development if expressed to him in a loving manner. Use this
presenting dilemma as an opportunity to teach him the value of facing
challenges and handling them. Reinforce him for applying himself to
accomplish things that need to be done. And help him learn to reward
himself for a job well done. He will respond to your genuine intent
of having his best interests at heart.
Communicate your concern for his physical health
as well as his emotional well-being. Ask him to help you separate
his physical symptoms from feelings related to the tasks at hand.
Provide an empathetic ear for any anxieties or tensions that might
be a part of his experience surrounding the chores involved. It is
natural for feelings to be experienced physically to some extent.
And he may need reassurance that all of us can get "butterflies in
our tummy" when anxious, but it does not mean we are "sick". If there
is anxiety, help him identify it and develop skills for coping with
Also, evaluate what you expect of him. Be sure your
expectations of your son are appropriately challenging to him, but
not overly challenging. If you are unsure, ask others who have 6 year-olds.
When you determine what tasks are appropriate, build success into
his endeavors. You might also explore the meaning of his "needing
more attention". In what way do you think he does need your attention?
Take note of your attention to him as it occurs naturally throughout
the day. You might even keep a journal of your observations to determine
whether you do give him unsolicited attention spontaneously, or whether
your interest in him is generally expressed when he comes to you with
physical symptoms. Be sure you are routinely checking in with him,
even when he is not "causing any problems". Assure him of time you
will be spending together that he can look forward to, as well.
When you open up a dialogue with your son about the
value of mastering versus avoiding appropriate challenges in his life,
be sure to do so in a loving and respectful manner. Communicate your
belief in him to be able to learn to apply himself to a situation,
even if he is having difficulty doing so. Let him know he has the
ability to achieve. He just needs to learn to pace himself.
Pay attention, also, to the role modeling present
in the family. Is there anyone who avoids dealing with tasks at hand
by getting sick? Or in some other way evades finishing things? If
he is reflecting other role models in the family in some way, it will
be necessary to address this first before expecting him to change!
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