The Effect of a Diabetes Diagnosis on the Family

One day your family is clicking along as usual. The next day, without any warning, you're in the hospital with your child. You've just been told he has type 1 diabetes, and you're overwhelmed learning how to give insulin injections, manage hypoglycemia and cook a whole new way.

Denial. Fear. Guilt. The range of emotions after you find out your child has diabetes can be emotionally wrenching. It's not uncommon for the first month to pass by quickly because you're so busy learning all about how to care for your child that you may not have time to grieve, says Dr. Rose Gunitosi-Klug, pediatric endocrinologist at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

"Parents can be so wrapped up in making sure that they are doing it all correctly that it isn't until after the first month that they start to grieve," says Dr. Gunitosi-Klug. "Also, a child with type 1 diabetes will be in the honeymoon period for 6 to 12 months, so the family feels better as the insulin doses are coming down."

However, parents' hopes that perhaps the child won't need insulin longterm are dashed as the honeymoon period ends. "Then the reality hits them," Dr. Gunitosi-Klug says. "Because after the first year, when the child's pancreas is still making some insulin, then their body doesn't make any more in the second year."

Families grieve on a different time table, she says, but it's frequently after the first 6 to 12 months that the reality settles in: this is lifelong, and it's not going away. "The parents of toddlers tend to grieve more," Dr. Gunitosi-Klug says. "They're closer to when the child was first born, and they automatically have more guilt. They think, did I do something wrong? Did I give them juice before we were supposed to, or did we let them eat too many cookies?"

Guilt and sadness also are common when a family member develops type 2 diabetes, says Kellie Rodriguez, certified diabetes educator at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami. And if a parent with type 1 has a child who then is diagnosed with type 1, the guilt can be overwhelming, she adds. An adult, when diagnosed, blames herself, feeling that she should have exercised earlier, or watched her weight more, Rodriguez says.

Denial is another emotion many families initially experience, she says. "Denial is big," Rodriguez explains. "When a family member is diagnosed, you don't want to accept that this has happened."

Getting used to diabetes in the family can be eased if you:

● Help your family adopt the same meal plan as the person with diabetes, says Dr. Gunitosi-Klug. "The families who do this do extremely well because then the child doesn't feel isolated from what everyone else in the family is doing and eating," she says.

● Enlist the help of the staff right from the get-go if your child is in school, . "There can be a lot of worry for a parent when you're not around your child," says Dr. Gunitosi-Klug. "Getting the nurse and teachers involved can help stop the worry."

● Realize you are not alone. More than 10 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and of these, 6 million are unaware of it, says Rodriguez. Some 54 million people in the country have pre-diabetes, she says.

● Educate yourself about what he should be eating and how he should increase exercise if a family member is diagnosed with type 2, says Dr. Gunitosi-Klug. "Families may think they understand what needs to be done and how to care for diabetes, but many of these families think that diabetes complications are inevitable, but they're not."

Studies have found that if a person with diabetes achieves a target blood sugar level and A1C, the risk of complications decreases, Gunitosi-Klug says.