How can I tell if our teenager is faking an illness to get out of school? He often complains of not feeling well on school day mornings, but, interestingly enough, his symptoms usually disappear by mid-afternoon and rarely surface at all on weekends. Is it wrong of me to distrust him?
There are no easy solutions to this problem. You've probably learned this the hard way. Maybe you've struggled with guilt upon discovering that your adolescent really was sick after you overruled his protests and sent him to school. Or perhaps you've extended compassion in the morning only to end up feeling "had" when he took off on his bike at the end of the day. Whatever the precise details of your situation, your experience is more common among parents of teens than you may realize.
If the symptoms are frequent, ask your health-care provider to help sort things out. To get the most out of this consultation, spend time before the visit talking over the problem with your teenager. List the problems (fatigue, headaches, etc.) and their characteristics (how often, how long, what helps, what makes it worse). Pinning down details in this way will help to provide some definition and eliminate unhelpful vagueness.
While you're at it, try to get a feel for the social weather at school, in the neighborhood or at church. Questions with no obvious right or wrong answer ("Who do you like to hang around with?" or "What's your least favorite class?") may open the window to some current events and possibly tip you off about pressures contributing to the symptoms.
Your teen's doctor will need to ask some questions, too, including perhaps a little gentle probing into the issues of the patient's daily life. If the medical evaluation uncovers a specific diagnosis, be sure that both you and your adolescent understand what should be done about it – including the parameters for going to school versus staying home. If the problem doesn't appear to be an ongoing physical illness, all of you together should develop a game plan for dealing with mornings when he doesn't feel well and agree on the ground rules for school attendance.
If you do uncover personal or psychological issues that are contributing to the physical symptoms, don't back away from working toward solutions. Whether it's a hard-nosed teacher, local bullies, an absence of friendships or some other emotion-jarring problem, your teenager needs to know that you're on his team and that you weren't born yesterday. Making progress in one or more of these areas will actually go a long way toward shortening his symptom list.
If you feel you need professional assistance in dealing with these issues, call our Counseling department. Our staff would be more than happy to discuss this situation with you or your teen over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of professional therapists in your area who specialize in working with youth.
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