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How to talk to your children about diabetes

I had one of those bad lows the other day, the kind I haven't had in awhile, the kind where the objects in front of my eyes start to flash and I feel like I'm inside a funhouse, but I'm not having any fun.

I was in the middle of Target for back-to-school shopping with my three children. As two of my boys wandered toward the toy aisle and the other loaded his arms with boxes of #2 pencils, I gripped the shopping cart, trying to remain calm. I was afraid other mothers were watching and that I appeared on the outside as frazzled as I felt on the inside. Relief washed over me as my fingers located the container of glucose tabs, and I quickly ate three tropical flavored tabs. After a few minutes my vision cleared, I staggered back to the surface and located my wandering children.

Safely home, we unpacked their school supplies and I swallowed some Advil for my pounding headache. Exhausted, I sunk into the couch and tried to figure out what went wrong. I don't like to get low around my children.

I got low because when I woke up that morning I gave an extra bolus to bring my high blood sugars down. Unfortunately I came down too far. These roller coaster days don't happen often, but when they do, they remind me that I'm not invincible. Back-to-school shopping alone with my kids on a Saturday may not be the best idea. Mistakes happen to everyone and feeling guilty doesn't do any good.

Hypoglycemia is a reality of living with diabetes. It scares me and it scares them.

Why you should talk to your kids about diabetes

Information can empower your children and transform diabetes from something scary into something they can understand. Talking to your kids about diabetes is an effective way for the whole family to understand your unique needs for managing the disease.

It is important to take your child's age and maturity level into consideration when you have this discussion (or series of discussions).

Here are some suggestions for talking to your kids about diabetes at different developmental ages.

Preschool. To help preschoolers, it is essential to assure them diabetes is not their fault and to help minimize their fears. Returning to a security object should be encouraged, rather than discouraged. Answer all questions honestly, including those about death. This is a good time to rely on books, which can help you help your child work through complex and often frustrating feelings about illness.

Recommended Books:

  1. The Little Red Sports Car, A Modern Fable About Diabetes, by Eleanor Troutt
  2. Can Mom Have a Piece of My Birthday Cake?, by Rochelle L. Stern

Elementary School. At this age the focus is school, outside activities and peer relationships. While parents and family are still central, the biggest concern is: "What will happen to me if you are ill?" Children typically have more questions and concerns at this stage; however, only the simplest explanations traditionally need to be given.

Role-playing can be a great tool to use at this stage of development. I acted out a low blood sugar episode with my boys, and while I collapsed on the floor of the playroom, they raced to the kitchen to get a juice box and glucose tabs. One held my head in his lap while the other placed the juice box straw in my mouth. They revived me and pleaded to act out the scenario again.

Middle school. Adolescents work to achieve separation from parents. Even though he or she appears grown, your adolescent needs as much love and reassurance as your younger children. In discussions about diabetes, be prepared to give much more detailed information, especially all the facts about the disease. A major concern or fear could be: "Will I get it too?"? Honest and open discussion of your own feelings may help them to express their own feelings.

Remember, children of all ages want to be included in family discussions and these conversations are usually ongoing. Questions and concerns may change as your children grow older and you can help them by providing the answers.

Taking care of yourself sets a good example

Worrying about our blood sugars or making sure we eat often takes a back seat to the demands of our family. When the baby is crying, and homework needs to be done, it is easy to forget to check our sugars. But as parents with diabetes, we need to put our health first.

Rachel Garlinghouse has two young daughters and says, "I know that if I don't put my health first, everyone in my family will suffer. Diabetes or not, how I treat myself is likely how my daughters will learn to treat themselves. I value exercise, healthy eating, sleep, and relaxation. If you don't take care of yourself now, you'll pay for it later."

About Amy Stockwell Mercer

Amy Stockwell Mercer is the author of The Smart Woman's Guide to Diabetes, Authentic Advice on Everything from Eating to Dating and Motherhood and the follow-up, The Smart Woman's Guide to Eating Right with Diabetes, What Will Work, will be published in the winter of 2012.

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