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Tough talk: Teens and diabetes

Raising children is challenging under the best of circumstances, but when you have a child with diabetes—specifically a teenager who often wants to test his or her limits by ignoring you, eating “bad” foods or not monitoring blood sugar for fear of being “different”—you need to be especially careful.

Even the best youngsters, who for years have followed their diabetic management plans, may become rebellious and refuse to comply. They may go through denial and act emotionally in reaction to the stress of puberty and their chronic condition. The desire to lose weight (and stop their insulin injections) may also become an issue.

This attitude can lead to complications such as kidney failure, blindness, circulation problems and heart disease. Which is why you need to stay involved—without nagging or lecturing. Many professionals in the field recommend a “family-centered approach,” meaning the entire family as well as your child’s medical team need to provide emotional as well as physical support.

So how do you do this without making your child feel isolated and singled out? Communication is your first step. Encourage your son or daughter to open up to trusted friends and teachers about diabetes. Sharing the disease with others and getting a positive, supportive response can help increase self-confidence at a crucial time in your teen’s life. Other pieces of advice:

  • Empower your teen by advising him or her on how to take insulin, monitor blood sugar levels and keep good records in a blood sugar log. Try not to be overprotective. Don’t criticize blood sugar numbers or judge your child by labeling the values “good” or “bad.”
  • Plan ahead: Fast-food restaurants will always be a teen hangout, so help your son or daughter become familiar with what’s on the menu and what the healthiest choices are. At the mall, encourage him or her to choose several small, healthy items from various food stands to make a complete meal. Going over upcoming lunch menus at the school’s cafeteria will also help you and your teen determine the practical meals he or she can try.
  • Teach good nutrition habits. If you suspect your teen is trying to lose weight and skipping insulin injections, have your child talk to his or her doctor. The doctor can work with your teen to adjust diet and insulin so a healthy weight can be achieved without the risk of an eating disorder and other dangerous consequences.
  • Recognize his or her emerging maturity and encourage self-reliance. Try not to be overprotective.
  • Expect rebellion as your adolescent strives to achieve independence. Be as patient and calm as you can, and don’t let your own frustration and anger spill over to your child.
  • Be sensitive. Remember that you, too, were a teenager once and wanted to fit in.
  • Join a support group if you’re having problems coping. Often, the advice and experience of other parents can help you formulate your own solutions.
  • Encourage your child to join a diabetes support group for teens. He or she can meet other kids of the same age and learn how they cope with the condition.