For teens and children with Type 1, the actual time of their diabetes diagnosis is often a confusing and frightening blur. They have a memory of feeling ill, being suddenly taken to hospital and waking up on a drip, surrounded by various medical staff and anxious parents. It may all seem like a nightmare, best forgotten.
Diabetes, though, can’t be forgotten. Unlike the usual illnesses of childhood, Type 1 diabetes won’t ever go away. When the child slowly realises this they’re naturally both frightened and upset. They may long for it to be yesterday, or last week – to return to the way things were before.
Coping with a diabetes diagnosis
All people – and families – have different ways of coping with things, and children are likely to copy the way that their parents cope. After the physical and emotional shock of a diagnosis of diabetes, expecting a child to deal with things quickly and practically isn’t helpful. This shock and the way their life has changed need to be acknowledged and talked about, allowing them to express their feelings, however difficult.
No one knows precisely what the child has gone through, and they may not be able or have the words to explain it. They may blame themselves, or see their diabetes as a punishment for something. It’s a good idea to let them express their fears and emotions now, as these won’t simply disappear – and even if they lie buried they may re-emerge at a later date – maybe in their teens or 20s, say.
Some children with Type 1 diabetes may choose to minimise their difficulties, preferring not to mention it, ignore it or play it down. Everyone finds their own way of coping, and some children may cope better than others. Be aware, though, that a child who seems to be coping very well may be hiding their true feelings.
How to support children with diabetes
After a loss – and this is a loss – people naturally go through a period of grief and mourning. This process takes time, but is necessary for recovery and for getting used to a new and difficult way of life. How long it takes depends on the individual and how much support, both emotional and physical, is available. Allow children to grieve in their own way, and don’t try to hurry them.
One way to help a child through this difficult time is to let them talk openly to someone who’ll listen and understand. Having Type 1 diabetes is often a lonely business, and having the support and understanding of family and friends can be a great source of strength.
Older children and teenagers
Many children (especially older children) find it difficult to talk about their diabetes – as indeed do many adults. They may find it easier to talk to someone outside their immediate family – like a grandparent or best friend. It can also help an older child to keep a daily journal to say how the day was, what was especially difficult and what was good.
Young children with diabetes need comfort, cuddles and calm handling. If your child’s diabetes diagnosis comes when they’re very young, be aware that problems may emerge when they’re older – often when school starts and your child realises that their life is different to those of other children.
Tips for teens and older children with diabetes
- Diabetes – and those who live with it – deserve respect. Give it, and expect it.
- Try to acknowledge privately and publicly that it’s difficult, but also that you have the strength to handle it.
- Try to work out a relationship with your diabetes that isn’t destructive. It can’t be the enemy if it’s part of you, if you live with it.
- Think of your diabetes as a difficult relative who you care for – sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s frustrating – and sometimes it’s infuriating. At times you’ll cope really well; at others you won’t. Be kind to yourself – you’re only human.
The Diabetes UK Helpline
There’s no need for a child with Type 1 diabetes to stop doing anything their friends do. But there can be difficulties on the way and these need to be acknowledged.
If you, or your child, want to talk through any concerns or get more diabetes information or support, call the Diabetes UK Helpline on 0345 123 2399 Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm (calls may be recorded for training and quality purposes).