“Since my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes last year at age 7, I find it’s harder and harder for me to tell her no,” confesses Jenni. “Life is already full of challenges for her, so it’s hard for me to turn her down even when I know I should. I sometimes feel helpless over her diabetes, and I feel guilty that she has it and I don’t. That’s why I think I tend to overindulge her. But I don’t want her to be a spoiled brat either. Finding the right balance is something I struggle with on a daily basis.”
Jenni’s certainly not alone. “Many parents of children with type 1 diabetes feel guilty because they are constantly saying no,” says Zac Grisham, a licensed professional counselor at the Beckloff Pediatric Behavioral Center in Dallas, Texas — whether it’s no to a junk-food snack when blood sugar is already high or no to a playdate at a friend’s house when battling unpredictable lows. Even when you’re not saying no, just the fact of having to closely monitor your child’s food intake can make you feel like a nag. “Instead of being the loving but firm parent they feel that they should be, many parents find that they have somehow managed to become the Food Police,” says Grisham. That feeling can lead parents to overindulge their children in other areas — maybe a bit too often.
Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, agrees. “Parents of kids with type 1 want their children to have a happy, ‘normal’ childhood experience,” she says. “They want them to be able to engage in activities with other children, to not be limited by any special needs.” This only becomes a problem when, out of guilt or desire to combat stereotypes of diabetes, parents err on the side of becoming overly permissive.
If you sense yourself on that slippery slope, a good first step is to switch your mindset from guilt to empathy. “Let children know that you understand it can be difficult to have to deal with diabetes day in and day out,” says Grisham, “but that you love them and it’s your job to teach them how to take good care of themselves and their bodies.”
Part of that educational process is giving them the power to say no for themselves. “The only way to help children deal with the food monitoring required with type 1 diabetes is to teach the facts to the child and empower the child to make healthy decisions for himself,” says psychologist and parenting book author Fran Walfish, Psy.D. “When it comes to mastering one’s own body and body functions, kids must feel at least partly in control of what goes in and what comes out.”
Grisham says parents should also remind kids of what they can do instead of what they can’t do, and recommends using the “ACT” technique to help them do so. This technique is a calm way to address the child’s emotional state while also reminding them of the control that they have over their own life.
Here’s how it works:
Acknowledge the emotion: “You really are frustrated because you want that candy in the store window.” This emotional reflection helps lower their heightened emotional state because they are feeling understood, according to Grisham.
Communicate the limit: “We’ve already had dessert, so the candy is not for us today.” Try not to use the word “can’t” or “don’t,” because you want to focus on what the child can do.
Target an alternative: “You can either have an orange or strawberries.” While the child may think that candy is definitely preferable to fruit, you want to continue to give power back to him or her in order to build some self-efficacy, says Grisham. You could also give a delayed alternative, such as “We can plan a special ‘sweets day’ this weekend, and you can pick out your favorite candy bar for dessert then.”
Remind yourself that setting limits is actually saying “yes” to their good health and well-being, which is ultimately your first priority. Says Deibler, “With your guidance, kids can learn to live life to the fullest despite the challenges they face.”
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.