Tips for Talking to Your Teenager with Diabetes: Avoiding Shame + Blame
A recent viral study that polled 1,000 parents showed 75 percent of them agreed that children from the ages of 13 to 19 were the most difficult to parent, with the top reported answer being 15-years-old. Parenting a teenager can be difficult, period.
Throwing an illness like type 1 or type 2 diabetes on top of it can make it even more challenging!
As a parent of a teenager with diabetes, you are trying to support them, but you don’t have full control or access to their decisions each day. You may not even have full access to their blood sugar levels or how much insulin they’re taking.
Teenagers are notorious for keeping their lives and feelings sheltered from their parents. They might be at a time in their lives where they find you “uncool” or want to do everything themselves. They might be confused about what they’re going through and feel unsure about what they can go to you about.
Being a teenager with any type of diabetes is especially hard, and being a parent to one is too.
Learning how to support and communicate with your teenager about their diabetes can impact how their disease affects their life, your relationship and your entire family. Here are tips for supporting your teenager with diabetes.
Listen + be open
Showing someone—even your mom—your blood sugar levels can make you feel like you’re putting your personal diary on display. Those numbers carry so much weight. If you want to have open, in-depth discussions with your teen about diabetes management, you have to create a non-judgmental, safe space for them to share without fear of getting in trouble.
Remember, diabetes is really personal, and your teenager inevitably feels like their numbers are a constant grade: either they did it right or failed. It can be scary to see fluctuating blood sugar levels as a parent, but if you react by scolding them every time, you’ll drive them to hide their data from you. You may also leave them feeling like they’re failing even when they’re trying their best.
It’s critical to ensure your teen knows they can struggle with their blood sugars without getting in trouble.
The simple question: “Okay, it looks like you had a challenging day. What can I do to support you?” can go a long way. This is their disease. The more you acknowledge that they are in charge, the more empowered they will feel. The less you scold and judge them for imperfect blood sugars, the more open they will be with you about what’s going on.
When it comes to diabetes, they might just need to vent about their day, whether that’s an off-the-cuff comment about their blood sugar levels or a half-hour conversation about how they wish it were easier to bolus for pizza. Be there. Listen. Ask questions that give them space to keep talking without judgment.
Empathize + show compassion
Sometimes, teens just want to hear that you know diabetes sucks. It can be in a parent’s nature to want to solve all of your children’s problems, but sometimes that’s not what they need. As hard as it is to hear (and accept)—sometimes, you can’t!
“I know this is really hard” is a powerful sentence that people with diabetes of any age want to hear from their family, friends and healthcare team.
While you might not be able to understand it on the same level as your teen, you can offer your moral support, and it can make all the difference.
Acknowledging how hard it is every day to manage insulin doses and blood sugar levels on top of real-life stuff means you’re also saying that it’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to make mistakes.
If you want to talk about it further, remember the other powerful question you can ask: “How can I support you?” This allows them to analyze their needs and gives them practice asking for help. It also puts them in control of the conversation. Doing everything for your teen can make them think they cannot tackle diabetes alone, and you know they aren’t!
Remember, what feels like support to one person may not feel supportive to another. Let your teen steer this ship! Ask them questions and listen to their answers.
Control your reaction + avoid projecting
As a parent, you are inevitably worrying about their immediate and long-term health and safety every day. Their eyes. Their kidneys. Low blood sugars while driving, at a sleepover and at basketball practice. It’s a level of anxiety that makes normal parenting anxiety look like no big deal.
But you have to learn how to manage that anxiety because it can negatively affect your teen with diabetes.
- When you’re upset about blood sugar levels being off at a diabetes checkup: Let them know you are upset they have to deal with this, not that you are upset they aren’t “perfect” at managing diabetes. Let them know no one is perfect—not even you! They will appreciate your vulnerability in the long run.
- When you’re frustrated about the costs of diabetes medications and supplies: Let your teenager know they are not to blame for the high costs, and you are angry at your insurance or the health care system in general. Let them know you wouldn’t change who they are for the world (even if they cringe upon hearing it)! Even teens with tough exteriors need to hear they are loved unconditionally.
- When you’re frustrated with day-to-day management: Let your teen know that they aren’t a burden. Tell them you wish you could take it away from them and that you’re so proud of them for dealing with it every day! Let them know it’s okay to be frustrated sometimes, and they don’t have to put on a brave face all the time.
- Keep your expectations realistic: Teenagers should not be expected to achieve the same blood sugar levels as adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s with diabetes. Be fair with your expectations.
- Lead by example: The more you teach your teen that it’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to pick yourself up and try again, the more they will adopt that mentality. Teach them what a positive attitude and a resilient mindset look like.
As an adult, you have had more time to build your emotional bandwidth and control your reactions. It’s important that you show that to your teenager so that they can learn to build the same skillset, following your example. Create an open and direct relationship with your teen to foster lifelong skills.
Celebrate the big + small diabetes wins
Managing diabetes every day is overwhelming, exhausting, scary and stressful! It’s a lot for anyone to take on at any age. Give your child a regular high-five for simply showing up every single day and trying again.
It’s important to celebrate the big and small wins with your teenager, no matter how hands-on or hands-off you need to be with them and their diabetes management. Although they might think you’re not cool right now, they still want you to be proud of them and be their biggest cheerleader.
The teenage years are a pivotal time for building self-esteem, and this is especially true of feeling capable of managing an illness like type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Find ways to be positive and encouraging without patronizing or belittling your teenager. Speak to them on a respectful level that you both can appreciate.
Use the right words when you’re truly concerned
There may be times when waiting for them to open up to you and “just listening” is not an option. Enter the importance of being observant! If you notice changes in your teenager’s weight, energy levels, appetite, social interactions with friends, or behavior in general (beyond “typical” fluctuations for a teenager), show your support without being judgmental.
Here are some examples of how you can approach them if you observe any of these changes:
- If your child’s appetite goes down, this could be a sign of depression, stress, or even anorexia. If you see this happening, ask your child gently: “Jane, I’ve noticed that you’re not eating as much lately. Is everything okay?”
- If you notice that your child isn’t hanging out with their friends as much as they used to, this could indicate that they are being bullied or are fighting with them. If you notice this, ask them: “John, I’ve noticed you haven’t hung out with your friends in a while. How are they doing?”
- If you notice that your child’s energy levels are sluggish, this could be a sign of depression, feeling isolated, or poorly controlled blood sugar. If you notice they are more fatigued than usual, ask them if they’d like to do one of their favorite activities with you. Take a family hike, go to the movies, walk around the mall—something to lift their spirits and make them feel comfortable!
- Don’t be afraid to call their doctor or even a school guidance counselor for advice if you need another opinion on the best way to help them. They should be available to help you in situations like this!
These are just a few examples of productive ways to approach these challenges with your teen.
Changes like this could indicate your teen is depressed or needs to talk to a mental health professional. Reassure your child that you are a safe person to talk to, they aren’t in trouble, and you only want to help.
Likewise, as a parent, don’t be afraid to explore therapy for yourself. Nothing has to be “wrong” for you or your child to go to therapy. Therapy is healthcare and should be perceived like any other preventative healthcare visit, such as an annual physical. Having routine therapy appointments can help you approach life more productively and positively, among many other benefits!
Parents + teens aren’t perfect—that’s okay (and expected)!
Teenagers aren’t perfect, and they will make mistakes, but it’s important for them to hear that mistakes in diabetes management are normal and okay.
Parents aren’t perfect either. “Perfect” doesn’t exist. If we were all perfect, we wouldn’t be human (and life would probably be boring)! All we can do is our best in life. Mistakes in how we react and handle certain situations will happen. We need to forgive ourselves and each other when they do. We also need to be intentional in adjusting and reconditioning our behaviors when it is consistently problematic.
When parents don’t do or say the right thing, it’s important to circle back and address those moments with your children. While it may feel like admitting weakness to your child, they will actually build respect for you when you admit you didn’t handle something well.
Admitting your mistakes makes you accountable as a parent and sets a strong foundation for your teenager to grow into the same mindset when tackling diabetes or other challenges throughout their life!