Type 1 Diabetes: When a Child Is Diagnosed

As a parent, you probably thought that you could protect your child from harm if you made sure that she ate right, got enough sleep, and was up to date on all the recommended vaccinations. But everything changed the day your child was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In an instant, your family's life as you once knew it was forever altered. And you came to realize that the idea that you could keep your child from harm is not always possible.

When a child gets diagnosed with diabetes, the impact on the parents and siblings is intense. "It impacts everything," says Kellie Rodriguez, MSN, CDE, CPT, director of patient education at the Diabetes Research Institute. "It can challenge family relationships, or strengthen them."

Here's what you need to know:

  • It's important to avoid making special meals just for the child with diabetes. Instead, cook healthy meals the whole family can eat. The same meal plans that work for those with diabetes work for the whole family, Rodriguez says. "It's a healthy way of eating, with fresh produce, lean meats, and plenty of vegetables," she says.
  • Expect some sibling rivalry. Your other kids can't help but notice how much attention you're spending on the child with diabetes as you learn how to recognize a low blood sugar reaction, test the blood sugar, and give injections. So don't be surprised to see some acting out as the other kids vie for your attention. Make it a point to set aside some time to spend with your non-diabetic child on a regular basis, even it it's just to grab a slice of pizza or take a walk together.
  • Expect that you will feel guilty. "Parents may feel like they caused the diabetes in their child, so there is a huge perception of guilt," Rodriguez says. Don't let those feelings of guilt lead you to coddle your child and let him get away with inappropriate behavior. If you can't shake the guilt feelings, talking to your child's doctor may help you to understand that nothing you did "caused" your child to have diabetes.
  • When you're discussing your child's blood sugars, watch your language, Rodriguez says. "Don't refer to the blood sugars as 'good' or 'bad,'" she says. Instead, talk about high and low blood sugars. Your goal is to have your child feel comfortable coming to you when there's a problem, not trying to hide test results because he thinks you will be angry or disappointed. "Problem solve with your child," Rodriguez says. "If your child comes to you and says he has a blood sugar of 400, tell him thanks for letting you know, and ask for his help brainstorming how you can prevent this next time." You want your child to communicate with you and to have positive feelings about his ability to help control his blood sugar.
  • Talk to your child about her feelings, says Stephanie Maglio, RN, BSN, who works in the department of children's outpatient pediatric endocrinology at the Herman & Walter Samuelson Children's Hospital at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. "Tell your child that although you are sorry he has diabetes, it is a condition that together you can treat and manage," she says. "Remind him that it takes no more than 20 minutes out of his day to deal with blood testing and insulin." And encourage him to get involved in his care as soon as his doctor thinks it's appropriate.
  • Keep a watchful eye on your child, but don't be a helicopter parent. It's a delicate balance to be sure, Maglio says. Every child is different, so ask your doctor about how old a child should be before he assumes some of the day-to-day responsibilities like insulin injections. "But regardless of whether your child is 10 or 17, they need some adult supervision," Maglio says. It's especially critical in high school, she adds. "In high school, many kids just want to forget about diabetes," she says. "But these kids need someone looking over their shoulder so that their care doesn't fall by the wayside."