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6 Year Old Claims to be Ill
When Doesn't Want to Do Something

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?

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 chores.

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 cope.

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 it.

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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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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