"If I make a mistake in judgment, my son could die. All I could focus on was that the insulin he needed to keep him alive could also harm him if used incorrectly."
Laura Plunkett can't forget the dark thoughts and blinding fear she felt in the first few days after her son, Danny, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Facing an avalanche of detailed medical instructions and nutrition guidelines on top of the shock and grief of hearing that her child had a life-threatening disease, the 47-year-old mom from Marblehead, Mass., was, above all, afraid of the critical decisions and responsibilities that lay ahead.
"After they told me if I gave too much insulin, my son might go into a coma, it was hard for me to retain any information from the hospital," says Plunkett, co-author, with Linda Weltner, of a book on raising children with type 1 diabetes.
It's not just kids who may feel afraid when beginning treatment for type 1 diabetes. Timing blood sugar checks, counting carbohydrates and planning a menu, prepping for school outings and contingencies, not to mention administering insulin -- the challenges of the disease can be terrifying for parents, too, particularly for the first six months following a diagnosis.
Yet parents, and their children, do find a way to survive and to thrive. Following are a few strategies to help see you through.
"I've had parents tell me the first time they go grocery shopping, they break down and cry," says Cynthia Van Teyens, a pediatric diabetes nurse educator at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif. "But the more knowledge you have, the more control you have, and that should make you feel better. Diabetes education is critical, as is seeing a dietitian right away."
Stephanie of Allendale, N.J., said focusing on education helped keep her calm after her 8-year-old son's diagnosis. "I got the books, I learned carb counting. I dove into it. That's what you do as a parent, because you have no choice," she says.
Focus on the Task at Hand
When you're checking blood sugar levels or injecting insulin, remember that you are administering a crucial life-saving treatment. Approach your tasks with a calm, practical attitude, involving the child in your work as much as possible. For example, instead of ordering him or her to test glucose levels, ask: "Do you need a check?"
"Just focus on what you're doing. Don't apologize, even though your tendency is to want to do that. And give lots of hugs and kisses after," Van Teyens advises.
Assemble Your Team
Make sure that each of your child's guardians and caregivers and even brothers and sisters, if appropriate, know how to check blood sugar and administer insulin, both for the child's safety and so that the burden of treatment doesn't rest on just one parent. As caregivers, agree on a strategy to handle your child's fears, and be consistent. You'll all benefit by sharing your strength.
Tend to Your Emotional Health
Consider adding a counselor and social worker to your diabetes management team to help you work through feelings of anger, depression or fatigue. You can also attend a support group meeting; the JDRF's local chapters typically hold networking coffees, and its website has an online support team. Your child, too, may benefit from talking with a counselor.
Set an Example
Particularly where injections are concerned, it helps to remember that how you approach treatment may set the tone for how your child receives it. High anxiety in mothers may contribute to heightened stress in their children, which in turn may lead to poor cooperation with diabetes management.
It may also help to practice shots on yourself with saline to really get a feel for what your child is facing.
Know That It Should Get Easier
"Parents are very scared in the beginning, but they need to know right away that they can handle the situation. Parents do it every day," says Van Teyens. "I tell them, 'You will be surprised at how well you can do with this.'"
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the "typical" experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.