Parents and Family

Growing up with Diabetes

Growing up is not easy and growing up with diabetes, or any chronic condition, makes life that much more difficult for your child. This is something that we can recognise and try to understand, but unless we have actually had the experience ourselves we don’t know how it really feels. This is perhaps something that our teenagers with diabetes will remind us of on many occasions!

Here are just some of the experiences that our children may have as they grow up:

  • Feeling different from other children.
  • Being treated differently from other children at home, at school and socially.
  • Not feeling as good as their friends or the other children at school – having a low self-esteem.
  • Being aggressively determined to be as good, if not better, than everyone else.
  • Being frightened of looking foolish if they have a hypo at school or when out socially and being called names.
  • Feeling pressurised to achieve and do everything, by messages of being ‘normal’ when they don’t feel normal.
  • Being excluded from school activities or parties because they have diabetes.  

The feelings and experiences of our children with diabetes will vary with the age of diagnosis and there will be different effects for them and the family. It is difficult to grow up with diabetes from a young age and perhaps never know what it is like to not have diabetes and be treated normally. But it is equally difficult to be diagnosed in the teenage years – perhaps more difficult. Suddenly being faced with diabetes and all the changes this means in both lifestyle and self-image during the teenage years, are all happening at one of the most difficult stages of growing up.

One mother’s Experiences of the teenage years!
When my daughter was quite young I remember her going through a phase of believing that no one would want to marry her because she had diabetes. When I was young I believed that no one would want to marry me because I wore glasses. The answer to that was relatively easy – you can wear contact lenses! Not so easy to hide diabetes or to give reassurances to a 10 year old.

So when boyfriends started to appear on the scene at 14 or 15 years old there was always the worry of "when do I tell him about diabetes?" At this age she was very reluctant to tell anyone about it – she just wanted to be like her friends. The good text book standard advice of ‘always tell your friends that you have diabetes, just in case’….. really was totally ignored and understandably so. Teenagers are teenagers and with or without diabetes, they do not want to be different from their friends.

So what does a parent do in this situation? Perhaps this question should be " what can you do in this situation?" I think perhaps the answer has to be – nothing. Sit back, keep your fingers crossed, hope and have a bit of faith.

  • Hope that in the long run common sense and self-preservation will prevail. Hope that in the short term if she does have a hypo while she is on the date that it won’t be that bad that she can’t handle it before he notices. Hope that if the worst comes to the worst and he discovers she has diabetes before she has told him, he’s a nice lad and is not put off.
  • Faith is very important and sometimes very difficult when we see our teenager at home breaking all the rules, being stroppy and from tome to time being fairly objectionable! But having faith is very important to give your teenager the confidence they badly need and to show that even though you would prefer it if they told their new boy or girlfriend about their diabetes, you do understand how they feel.

This all sounds a bit like women’s magazine stuff, but my 30 plus years of experience as a parent has taught me that the one thing young people do not like is looking foolish in front of their friends. So, they make damn sure that they do not go hypo by eating plenty or by drinking normal [not diet] coke. It is called self-preservation – so have a bit of faith in that, if nothing else! 

What are the alternatives?
There is only one and that is conflict, probably a word that can never be over used when discussing teenagers, parents and diabetes. You can insist that they do the right thing, but you cannot make them. You can keep them cosseted at home longer because of their diabetes, but what are you achieving? Conflict, resentment and a breaking down of family relationships probably at a time when your teenager needs you the most [even though they would not admit it]. You are not needed in the way you were – to manage their diabetes for them, but to just be there, to boost their confidence by showing that you trust them [even if you don’t always!] and to pick up the pieces if or when necessary.

I wasn’t a wonderful parent
If I sound as if I was a wonderful parent who got it right, make no mistake, I wasn’t – you only have to ask my daughter! I learnt the hard way and we struggled through. We had conflicts, battles and tears, both hers and mine. Things improved but the change came from me, rather than her. I attended a course on listening skills and it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t really listening to my daughter, that my own feelings, my emotions and my worries were preventing me from really listening to her, to her fears and to her concerns. She had them despite the bravado that so often appeared.

So I tried to put all my emotions out of the way and truly listen to her. My emotions were largely ones of caring for her but nevertheless, came over to her as being over protective and not letting go of the apron strings. By putting aside my feelings, many of the conflicts disappeared. It enabled us to develop a good relationship that has continued to today, albeit that there have been some ups and downs along the way!

Two adults together looking back over those years
Now that my daughter is 39 we can look back over the years, the difficulties and the conflicts. We can also look at the good times. I think that we understand each other. She understands that I did the best I could and I admit that I did not always get it right and I have apologised for this, although this probably makes me feel better and rather than her!

Why should parents always get it right, even worse, why should we think that we ARE right! If we have not grown up with diabetes then we do not know how it feels – the difficulties, the conflicts and the worries that our children have. Diabetes in the family is a new experience for all of us, we have no previous experience to guide us through it and it is a continual learning curve. We can only do our best but of one thing I am sure, we have to let go of our children. If they make mistakes in the process, then we have to hope that they are not too serious or damaging, but we have to be there for them when they need us. That is a parent’s role, made more difficult by diabetes but even more essential.