"Mom, I don’t feel well!" It’s the third time this month your child has complained of a stomachache, and you suspect he’s pretending to be sick to play hooky from school.

But what if his symptoms are masking a more serious problem? What should you do as a parent to help solve the mystery behind your child’s behavior?

kid at schoolA Simple Stomachache -- or Something More? 
If your child has crying fits only on test days, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if your child starts bawling at the sight of the bus or the school every day, you might have a problem.

Sometimes the source of the stomachache can be traced to a teacher the child doesn’t like, or a group of bullies that your child fears. By getting to know the children and adults your child sees and interacts with on a daily basis, you can develop a better understanding of the school phobia.

“Raising a child is a big job, and you don’t have to do it alone,” says Janice Shayne, gifted education teacher at Oak Brook Elementary in the Parkway School District. “Talk with your child’s teachers, the school counselor or the principal and have an open relationship with your child. You can work through the fear or dislike together.”

How to Help
Get involved. “Parents need to get involved at school--whether through PTO or class trips--and encourage their children to play soccer or join the chess club, whatever they’re interested in,” says Shayne. “Getting involved gives children a sense of ownership of their school, making it a more fulfilling experience. And when parents get involved as well, it shows the child that school is important to the entire family.”

Start talking. Communicating with your child is crucial to working toward a solution together.

“Ask your child to help you figure out how to help him or her,” says Shayne. “By spending time with your child and finding out what it is he or she doesn’t like about school, you show you care.”

Get help. If you suspect something more serious is the underlying cause of the dislike for school, you may need to seek professional help.

“Constant avoidance of school can be due more to social reasons than academic,” says Catherine Hutter, PhD, psychologist on staff at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “If your child is having trouble interacting with peers in and out of the classroom, then he or she could have social anxiety disorder. Defiant or difficult behavior is often a signal of the disorder.”

Though the condition may sound scary to parents, it’s really no different than children being afraid of thunderstorms or taking tests. But it is a problem that should be handled as early as possible to avoid carrying the fear into adulthood.

“We work with the parents and the child to help the child face his or her fear,” says Dr. Hutter. “Though the child may never be an extrovert, he or she can be comfortable talking to people.”


Expert Advice