The Diabetes Family Affair

Your attitude sets the tone for how others will deal with your diabetes

with Amy Tenderich

straightup-hiresEditor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!

October 2005 —Recently overheard: my 5-year-old's Barbie talking to the tattered Sand Man doll that we affectionately call Grandpa:

"Achoooo! Aaaaaachoooo!"

"Are you all right?!" Barbie asks.

"Yes, it's just my Dia-Veeties!" Grandpa replies.

Me: "Um, Honey, what are you playing there?"

"None of your business!" my daughter snaps.

I slink away, chuckling. But then I realize: my kids think I'm sick! Sick, as in head cold… sick, as in tea and aspirin and call-me-in-the-morning. Is this good or bad? How soon do they need to understand that chronic diseases don't ever go away, and that they can and will kill you if you're not careful? Right now, it's probably enough for them to understand the things I need to do day-to-day.

The family dynamic is complicated, at best. And it really can make or break a person's diabetes care. Naturally it starts with your closest companion, your spouse, or significant other. If that person is supportive and helpful (rather than dismissive, or worse, pesky) you truly can enjoy the benefits of a "back-up team." But once again, it's up to YOU, as the person with diabetes, to set the tone: an upbeat atmosphere in which your loved ones know your needs and boundaries.

Here are some things I've learned along the way:

Be Open, Not Obsessive

As every relationship counselor will tell you, communication is key. It's great to talk openly about how your diabetes makes you feel and what you need to do – in moderation. If you go on ad nauseam, your partner (or other family member) really only has three choices, none of which you're going to like: 1) learn to ignore your whining, 2) ask you to shut up, or 3) get involved and start making recommendations about what you should do or eat. In my case, I've finally learned to tell my partner that sometimes I just want him to listen, which works fine as long as I'm concise. A little venting gets me the empathy I want, while too much just gets us both mad.

Talking to the kids about my diabetes is another story. I don't want to scare them, but they will learn about the possible complications at some point, so I want them to hear it from me. I've found lots of resources for helping children understand crises and illness, but the basics are pretty intuitive:

  • be calm and positive
  • make sure what you tell them is age appropriate
  • give them bits of information that they can manage, i.e. lots of little conversations rather than one big one
  • answer questions honestly (don't try to shelter them)

Researchers note that kids' biggest fear is "Who's Going to Take Care of Me?" in case anything happens. Make sure they know that people are there for them.

Become the Anti-Parent: Put Yourself First

This is the really hard part. Every parent knows that kids come first. But to every rule there is an exception. Personally, I find that mealtimes are a disaster if I try to make everyone else happy before sitting down to get a bite in my own mouth. Consequently, my kids have learned the cardinal rule: let mommy eat!

Kassie Palmer, a mother of two young boys who's researching a guidebook for parents with diabetes, recently interviewed 150 parents with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. What she found was a bunch of people utterly frustrated that they'd "dropped their diabetes care" by putting themselves in the background.

"You've got to tie taking care of yourself to being a parent," Kassie says. "That's why I've focused on practical tips, like where to stash extra supplies, setting up glucose ‘testing centers' around the house to make it easier on yourself, and squeezing in a little exercise – like taking a walk around the perimeter of the park while your kids play soccer."

You might be surprised how quickly kids adjust to the extra time you spend on meal planning, medications, and exercise. But when they get impatient, I do remind them: "Mommy needs to do this in order to stay healthy! I want to be around when you have kids!" That always gets a laugh.

Page: 1 | 2

Last Modified Date: May 24, 2013

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by Brenda Bell
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