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How To: Raise a Teen with Diabetes

December 9, 2009

Today I’m speaking to a group of parents about raising a tween-slash-teen with diabetes (teens are 13-19, tweens are 11 and 12 because Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus have ruined the fabric of America’s youth – just sayin’). Because I have a very busy full-time job, I’m actually writing this the night before.

I was once a teen with diabetes. It was not that long ago, so I remember it quite well. Every so often, someone will ask me what is the hardest part of being a teen with diabetes. And I say, “The being a teen part.”

The truth is, having diabetes goes against the very nature of a teenager: It requires responsibility, it requires truthfulness with parents and other adult authority figures, it requires denial of pleasure, it requires doing things that others are not doing, and it causes potentially embarrassing situations, such as collapsing in the band building from a low blood sugar after a football game and having the band instructor shove an applesauce container in your face right after your friend forced you to drink some kid’s half-drunken root beer. And you don’t even like root beer! What, that’s never happened to you?

The difficulties of having diabetes are no surprise. Everything is a guessing game and it’s a frustrating, no-win guessing game. It’s no wonder that teenagers routinely say, “Screw it!” and jump off the bridge with everyone else. Jumping off the bridge is easy. Easy is good when you’re a teen. You don’t like hard. Hard is calculus exams and Shakespeare.

I have been a volunteer with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Online Diabetes Support Team (try saying that three times fast!) for the past seven years, since it was launched during the winter of my senior year in high school. Since then, I have answered countless emails from parents and teens about how to manage diabetes during these crucial formative years. While I spent the better part of my college years counseling teens through my website Diabetes Teen Talk (now owned and operated by dLife), I haven’t spent as much time counseling parents, except through my blog and the occasional diabetes support group meeting.

Here are a few things you should know:

Relax. No, seriously. Take a deep breath.

Learning to manage diabetes is like learning to drive a car. Everyone can do it, but if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing you can kill yourself or someone else. It’s a bad, bad idea to jump in without having proper instruction and regular follow-up.

Work with your teen, not against him. Your teen will have his own learning curve for managing diabetes. It took me a year and a half to get my driver’s license. It took my brother about six months. Everyone is different but we are all doing the exact same thing.

Your teen is afraid of disappointing you. They do not react well to anger or threats or groundings or anything else in your arsenal. Remember, your teen did not choose to have diabetes either.

Communicate regularly, but don’t nag. Discuss – calmly – the situation and your options (see advice #1). In the 21st century, there are new ways of managing your diabetes, from smaller meters to concealed insulin pumps to decorative stickers to personalize medical devices. Discuss with them the difficulties they are having – they are aware of problems but they may be afraid to ask for help. No yelling. Your teen wants your help (no, really, I’m serious) but they don’t want to be blamed.

Every teen will want their independence at different times. Do not let go too slowly or too quickly. Some teens actually want your help, because diabetes is hard! Others are more keen on working independently – but they still want you as a resource too. Work with your teen to troubleshoot the situation. Keep them involved – ask them what they think, what they know, what they want to do. They’re smarter than you think, and they’ll appreciate your confidence in their ability to make decisions. They will learn best from doing.

But always make sure you know what their decision is before they do it (they are teens, after all!).

Accept the fact your teen will probably forget to do something regarding their diabetes at least once. Probably more than that. They’re also probably going to lock themselves out of the house, forget their homework and fail that calculus exam. Shit happens.

Children with Diabetes says, “Remember that kids with diabetes are still kids.” Remember that teens with diabetes are still teens. They crave freedom, they want a car, they want to date and they want to go to college wherever they damn well want to. Work with them to help them achieve their dreams and goals and desires because diabetes should never make someone feel like they are different or not good enough.

Allison as a teenager, age 15, at JDRF Children’s Congress ’01.

  1. Cynthia permalink
    December 9, 2009 3:37 PM

    I wish my parents would have read this 12 years ago. Good Job! It was all true.

  2. Mother of t1 permalink
    December 10, 2009 8:43 PM

    Thank you for this column. My type 1 son is now 15, having been diagnosed at 9. The insights of someone who has lived through the experience of managing type 1 as a teenager and can reflect on it as a young adult are very useful to me. It is reassuring to read that successful management does indeed take a LOT of practice because sometimes it seems like we visit the same problems again and again before the learning sinks in. I also am very pleased to see you remind parents that punishment, grounding, or revoking of privileges works against good diabetes management. Punishment encourages a teen to hide his mistakes from his parents, one of the very last things the parent of a type 1 child or teen wants. Punishing a child for his failures in diabetes management just seems cruel to me.

  3. Lisa permalink
    December 10, 2009 11:30 PM

    Fabulous job at the moms group yesterday! Your perspective and insight was invaluable to us parents of tweens with diabetes…I am actually printing this out and keeping it on my desk… THANK YOU!!!

  4. December 12, 2009 1:01 AM

    My entire family suffer from diabetes it is a bad desease if not taking good care of it..can cause to damage some internal orgarns.

  5. January 13, 2010 10:34 AM

    Thanks. Great advise you got here. 🙂

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