The mystery of Munchausen by Proxy

In a recent blog post, Tania, a mom of 3, wonders whether we are over-medicating our children. ‘Nothing leaves me feeling more powerless than not being able to “fix” a sick child,’ she says and then goes on to consider the ‘predicament doctors are in and the pressure us worried parents put on them to ensure our children get better sooner. And whether this pressure doesn’t lead to more children being over-medicated as a result.’

Moms talk a lot about their children’s illnesses. We take them to the doctor, we do our research on the internet, we buy over-the-counter medication, all in the name of getting to the bottom of their ailments. Are we just concerned parents, or are we overdoing it?

A news report that appeared last week illustrates the vast distinction between a mom who is concerned about her child’s health and one who over-medicates or treats unnecessarily. Terri Cerda, a Las Vegas mom who was offered a home makeover to protect her apparently gravely ill children, is suspected of suffering from Munchausen by Proxy. In a subsequent court case over custody of the children, the judge found that Cerda ‘sought treatment against doctors' advice and repeatedly exposed her children to unnecessary intervention.’


Munchausen by Proxy, or Factitious Disorder, stems from Munchausen Syndrome, a mental illness in which someone pretends he or she has a serious illness and will endure even painful testing to validate the claim. It’s not hypochondria, in which the person really thinks they are ill. Munchausen sufferers know they aren’t ill, but will fake illness to undergo medical procedures.

Munchausen by Proxy is a mental illness that causes a parent, usually the mother, to subject her child to unnecessary medical testing, knowing that the child isn’t actually ill. Terri Cerda, for example, faked her daughters’ immune deficiency disorder in order to get attention. Her girls were found to be completely healthy.

How much concern is too much?

A mom’s primary concern is for her child’s health. This is the way things should be. But Munchausen by Proxy proves that there is a fine line between concern and abuse. Munchausen moms appear concerned about their children’s health, but what is actually going on is that they are exaggerating, fabricated or even inducing symptoms in their children.

Concern isn’t abuse

It’s worrying to think that we are possibly over-medicating our children. It’s also of concern that we tend to run to the doctor for every minor ailment instead of just letting it run its course. But we don’t need to be concerned that we are Munchausen moms. The difference between normal parental concern and Munchausen by Proxy, is this: the latter is a form of child abuse. We medicate when our children are ill. Terri Cerda medicated her daughters and convinced them that they were ill when in fact they were healthy.

Her doctor confirms this:

‘His opinion that the girls were victims of medical child abuse rested on three points: Terri Cerda's pattern of describing symptoms that did not appear to have any medical basis; her history of providing incomplete or inaccurate medical information; and the way she jumped from doctor to doctor, switching when a physician challenged her assertion that the girls were chronically ill.’

Have you heard of this syndrome?
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