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My gluten-free kid says his stomach hurts - should I keep him out of school?

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Updated July 03, 2012

My gluten-free kid says his stomach hurts - should I keep him out of school?
Getty Images/Tom Le Goff
Question: My gluten-free kid says his stomach hurts - should I keep him out of school?
Answer:

You're in a bit of a tough dilemma: you obviously don't want to make your child go to school if he has a gluten-induced stomach ache (and the other fun symptoms that come with a glutening). But you don't want to encourage, er, malingering if he's really just trying to get out of going to school.

So what should you do?

First, you should determine if he's really sick in a non-gluten-related way — i.e., if he has a fever and other symptoms of the stomach flu or food poisoning. Here's a guide to telling the difference: Is it the stomach flu, is it food poisoning, or did I get glutened?. If in doubt, it can't hurt to run it by the nurse in your pediatrician's office.

If it's your expert parental opinion that he doesn't have the stomach flu, then you need to make a judgment call. Does his stomach really hurt? Does he display other symptoms of a glutening, such as fatigue and headache?

If the answer is yes, then he's less likely to be faking as a way of getting out of going to school. If the answer is no (or if this same scenario recurs constantly), then yes, this may be a con job. But there also could be something else going on.

Could The Problem Be Anxiety? Bullying??

Sometimes the symptoms are genuine but the cause is more anxiety-driven than gluten-driven. Sadly, it's not uncommon for our gluten-free kids to be bullied in school. Even if that's not happening, social issues in school typically revolve around pizza parties and birthday cupcakes ... and our kids frequently feel left out, which could result in them not wanting to go to school at all.

If you suspect this might be the case, you need to sit down with your child and discuss why he's avoiding school. Although he might not welcome parental intervention (kids can be touchy about that), you may be able to help in some way.

For example, my daughter was sad because she couldn't share the treats that were passed around her classroom (even if she had her own gluten-free treat), so one day I brought the class gluten-free ice cream in cups that she could eat just like everyone else. This pleased her, because she didn't feel left out (at least for that one day).

You also may need to consider the possibility of depression or a behavior problem that affects schoolwork — those are more common in celiac teens.

Here are some more resources on gluten and school:

What If He's Just Trying To Get Out of Going To School?

It can be tricky to make this call, especially if your child's celiac disease or gluten sensitivity diagnosis is pretty recent.

To counter the possibility of a faked glutening, you might want to make this deal: he can stay home from school, but no "fun" stuff like video games, and no special foods (after all, his stomach hurts, right?). He should eat a bland, boring diet. Oh, and no after-school activities, either — not if he's not feeling well.

You may find that he's suddenly feeling better.

Of course, if he's not (or if this happens frequently), you may need to look into whether he's getting cross-contaminated with gluten.

Some children are naturally more sensitive to gluten than others, and may not be able to eat "gluten-free"-labeled foods without symptoms. In addition, very sensitive children may have difficulty eating in the school cafeteria when they're surrounded by typical gluten-filled school lunches — if that's the case, you may need to speak with the school to make alternate accommodations (a 504 plan can spell these out).

Here are some more resources that can help if your child is more sensitive to gluten than average:

The bottom line is, you shouldn't let your child use gluten as an excuse to avoid school. But if he's complaining more than once in a while of stomach aches he attributes to gluten, you should look around for a cause.

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