Later curfews, learner’s permits and a strong desire to be independent -- navigating the teenage years can be a bumpy ride for parents. So what happens when diabetes is added to the mix? The combination can create a wholly different situation than raising a teen who’s had type 1 his or her entire childhood. With children who are newly diagnosed during high school, it may feel like allowing the privacy and autonomy your teenager craves while trying to get a handle on diabetes management just isn’t possible.
Or is it? We asked experts -- and experienced parents -- to share their strategies for providing support to teens learning how to cope with diabetes. Here’s a look at what works.
When told they have diabetes, it’s normal for younger children not to fully grasp the idea that type 1 is a disease that doesn’t go away. On the other hand, most teenagers have reached the developmental milestone of “being able to see down the road,” notes Michael Fulop, Ph.D., a psychologist in Portland, Ore., who works with adolescents and young adults with diabetes.
This more concrete understanding of the future can profoundly shape how a teen responds to his or her diagnosis. “It’s very common for teens to feel sad and depressed after diagnosis and to start yearning for things they think, at the time, they won’t be able to do anymore, like eat their favorite foods or go out alone with their friends,” says Fulop.
Troubling emotions among newly diagnosed teens can also be triggered by suddenly feeling very different from their friends and classmates. “Teens don’t want to be different; they don’t want to be the ‘weird one,’ but so many facets of type 1 and blood sugar management can set a teen up to feel exactly that way,” explains Ann Becker-Schutte, Ph.D., a licensed counseling psychologist in Kansas City, Mo., who works with people facing chronic health issues, including diabetes.
“Developmentally, young children -- 5, 6, 7 years old -- may be better able to ‘roll with it,’” says Becker-Schutte, when it comes to adjusting to diabetes care routines and explaining type 1 to classmates. In contrast, at first, “most teens want their care routines and even the fact that they have diabetes kept very private and discreet,” she says.
In addition to monitoring blood sugar numbers, it’s important to pay close attention to your child’s emotional state. Sandra C., a mom from Arizona, has put in place a weekly “diabetes date” with her newly diagnosed 14-year-old son just to check in with how he’s feeling. “First of all, my son doesn’t know I call it a ‘date.’ He just thinks it’s me making the two of us a snack to eat together. In between bites, I try to ask a few questions, like ‘what are you and your friends doing this weekend?’ or ‘any new questions about diabetes?’ This approach seems to be working,” she says.
Taking into account teens’ concerns about not being in the spotlight any more than necessary can also help you strategize when it comes to letting the school know about the diabetes diagnosis. “Attending school for the day to teach classmates about diabetes is just something that doesn’t really mesh with most teens,” says Becker-Schutte. Instead, you might do some small-group teaching the next time your child’s friends are over at the house, or you might meet with teachers and the school nurse privately (with your child present) to discuss his or her care plan.
Other ways to help your teen in the early days after a diagnosis include finding a support group of other teens with type 1 (either in-person or online) and setting up an appointment for your teen to meet with the social worker or therapist on your care team.
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.
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