Sick Day Dilemma: Does My Child Need to Stay Home?

Child feeling sick

It has happened to all of us. Youre walking out the door in the morning when your child complains of a stomach ache. You think, "He was fine just a few minutes ago." Then you remember he has a test today that he was worried about. You think, "Is he really sick or just worried?" You have an important meeting to attend and you cant be late. What do you do?

Most working parents have faced this sick day dilemma. First, you conduct a quick physical assessment of your childs symptoms: taking his temperature, looking for rashes, and so forth. If you have time and a parenting partner, you might consult with him or her. But most of us have to make a split second decision about how to proceed with no time to ask a trusted friend or family member.

It is always good to have a back-up plan for sick days. Perhaps a family member can step in to provide care, or if you have a partner, perhaps you can alternate who stays home. But often there is no back-up child care plan and your meeting is still looming.

Tips to Determine if Your Child Is Sick

  • Consider the age of your child. The younger your child, the harder it is for her to separate physical symptoms from worry or concern. She may feel sick worrying about the test or about another child she doesnt get along with. If you choose to stay home and she perks up and doesnt appear to be sick any longer, enjoy the day together. You can both benefit from some close bonding time on this sick day. And remember for the future that her worry can show up as physical symptoms. The next time this happens, it would probably be good to have her go to school.
  • If your child is old enough, engage him in conversation about the day. "If you stay home today, you wont be able to play or watch TV. You will be able to nap or read which will help your body heal. Is that the kind of day your body needs?" Or ask questions like, "Do you feel sick, or are you worried?" Model the use of feelings-related words in how you express yourself.
  • Some children feel sick as a result of stress. Emotional and physical wellness are closely related. She may genuinely feel sick even if there are no symptoms. If you make the decision to stay home, spend some time bonding and getting close and then ask gentle questions to try to learn more. "Tell me what you like about school." And then, "Tell me what is hard about school." Listening to your child is the best stress reducer. You can find other ideas to help children deal with stress in the resource section of the book Socially Strong, Emotionally Secure by Nefertiti Bruce.
  • Use natural consequences. If your school-age child wants to go out and play with friends when he arrives home, remind him that since he felt sick this morning, it is important to stay inside so that he wont get his friends sick. You may be pretty confident at this point that he is not sick, but having him stay in gives a "natural consequence" to staying home for the day. The positive is that he got you and your attention on the sick day but the consequence is not being able to play with friends.
  • Look for patterns. If your child always feels sick when you are leaving for business travel, she may find it particularly hard when you are away for more than a day. That doesnt mean you have to change your plans but maybe you see if there is any possibility to cut back on business travel until she is older. If that is not possible, develop rituals to make the time pass quickly. For example, she opens a small surprise from you each day until you return.
  • Feeling sick might be a call for more attention. All of us crave and benefit from attention from those we love and an extra day together might be good for both of you.
  • Sometimes children just need to know that we will put them first - that we will put them above our meeting. Sometimes it is okay to take a sick day even if we arent sure our child is ill.

Parenting is an incredibly complicated job requiring complex decision-making, empathy and understanding. Although decisions about what to do when youre not sure if your child is sick deserve careful thought, we rarely have that luxury. If you stay home and your child is really sick, you obviously made a good choice. If you take a sick day and your child appears miraculously better, make the most of the day together and if you can, use the opportunity to learn more about any concerns or worries our child may have.

More on Dealing with a Sick Child

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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
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Child feeling sick