Q: My husband and I were already headed down the road to a divorce before finding out our son has type 1 diabetes. After putting things on hold for a few months as we came to grips with his diagnosis, we've decided that separating is best for us. How do we explain this to our son in such a way that he doesn't think the divorce is his fault or related to the diabetes?
A: While there is no one “right way” to break the news to your child that you are divorcing, there are several steps both of you can take to help get this conversation off to the right start, especially when it comes to reassuring your son that his diabetes played no role in the two of you making this difficult decision.
Explain in child-appropriate, non-blaming language that the two of you have decided that you will get along better living apart -- but that you are still a family, you still love your son, and you remain on the same team in caring for his diabetes. In this first conversation, it’s important to be direct in telling your son that your divorce has nothing to do with his diabetes, and perhaps even more to the point, your decision to divorce has nothing to do with him.
In terms of your son’s diabetes care, one of the most reassuring messages for your child to hear can be that you’re all still in this together, no matter what. However, telling him you’re on the same team also means acting like you are. Behind the scenes, this may mean checking in with your son’s care team to make them aware of your change in living arrangements and the plans you have in place to support your son. Likewise, your care team can give you feedback on how to keep your son’s health a priority during this time of transition. A few things that can help:
Decide who will take responsibility for which diabetes tasks. For example, one parent may do all ordering of supplies, and the other may pick up prescriptions. Or one person may send meter downloads to your healthcare provider, and the other may schedule appointments. There are a number of things to take care of, so write out a list of all diabetes-related tasks and together with your ex, assign each one to yourself or to him.
Attend diabetes doctor visits together. This will ensure that both parents stay in the loop. It also helps the medical team to hear about experiences (such as unusual highs and lows) from both households in order to provide the best care. If one of you can’t be there, send along a letter or email with any updates.
Coordinate your child’s routine in both households. For example, try to wake up, do glucose checks, serve meals, and go to bed around the same times, so your child knows when to expect these things. This may not always be possible, but as much as you can, try to make both living environments similar.
Communicate. Talk with your ex often and communicate when you've made a change in your child’s routine, care, or responsibilities. This will help ensure that you’re setting consistent expectations and following through with them.
When major changes happen in the family, it’s common for children’s thoughts to immediately turn to “What’s going to happen to me?” Provide your child with as much concrete information as you can about what will change and won’t change. Keep checking in, and keep offering reassurance: Don’t feel like a broken record in telling your son again that what’s going on has nothing to do with him or his type 1. This could be exactly what he needs to hear.
-- Diana Naranjo, Ph.D., is a clinical child psychologist and assistant adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco.
How Other Parents Deal
“We got divorced a few years before our son was diagnosed with type 1, but [since his diagnosis last year] we've gone to every single one of his doctor's appointments together. It's important for me, and I know it's important for my ex-husband, too, that our son understand how united we are in our support for him.”
--Sandra C., Phoenix, mom of 14-year-old Derek
Disclaimer: The information in these articles is not intended as medical advice. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding individual care.
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