Sending a child off to college for the first time is an emotional experience for any parent. When your child has type 1 diabetes, it’s bound to be even more anxiety-provoking. Will your child be able to handle all of his or her own diabetes care, without you helping, reminding, assisting, nudging and cajoling?
If questions like this are keeping you up at night, you’re not alone. “It can be overwhelming and scary to send a son or daughter with type 1 off to college,” says certified diabetes educator Vandana R. Sheth, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Change can be hard, but your confidence in your child’s diabetes management will help you to handle the send-off in a positive way.” Here are four areas in which to prep both yourself and your child beforehand to build that confidence and set your child up for success.
By the time your child starts college, she should be able to fully handle all of her diabetes care independently, without your help. Training her to do so should be a gradual process, says Sheth, since bombarding a child all at once with this information would be overwhelming and ineffective.
“Once my daughter hit ninth grade, I really tried to start training her on diabetes self-care, even when it felt easier to just do it myself,” says Jennifer, of Branson, Mo., whose daughter is now 19. “That way, I had four solid years to train her before she went off to college. By senior year, I allowed her to handle everything on her own, while I supervised. She’s a freshman now, and things are going great. All that time and training really paid off and have taken away a lot of my worries.”
Tasks a child should be able to do independently by the time he heads off to college include: testing and tracking daily blood sugar levels, ordering supplies, making doctor appointments and keeping track of insurance claims. To help keep track of where you stand and what training still needs to be done, use this printable checklist, developed by Sheth, as a starting point.
Before the big move, Sheth also suggests creating an agreement with your child in which you both commit to regularly scheduled communication — either by phone, email or text — to discuss blood sugars and diabetes-related concerns. Role-playing, discussing different situations or circumstances that might arise at college and having a strategy in place for problems that might arise are also recommended.
“Making sure that I have all the diabetes supplies I need in my dorm room is something I always make a top priority,” says Brian, 19, a college sophomore with type 1 diabetes. “I have a mini-fridge to store my insulin, a sharps container for lancets and needles, and a lockbox to keep all the rest of my supplies in. My dorm’s resident advisor also has an extra supply of my diabetes supplies in case there’s an emergency.”
To help your college-bound kid become as conscientious as Brian, be sure he’s in charge of taking stock of his own supplies for a while before leaving home. “As teens start taking greater responsibility for this, it becomes second nature and they’ll be more comfortable keeping track of it all when they go away to school,” says Sheth.
Agree on a plan for ordering and paying for supplies during the college years. Will your child start placing orders or will you continue to do so? Discuss any concerns that you or your child might have with regard to handling supplies with your diabetes care team.
Many parents wonder: Can college students be trusted to handle the red tape and paperwork that comes along with insurance claims? With the knowledge and tools you’ll give them, the answer is (mostly) yes. “While children are still living at home, start allowing them the opportunity to handle insurance details related to their diabetes care under your supervision, so that it’s not completely new to them when they leave for college,” says Sheth. “Even so, they might continue to need your help navigating insurance while at college.”
Robyn, mom of a 20-year-old with type 1 diabetes in Fairlawn, N.J., says she encourages her daughter to handle all insurance claims, but she always reviews the bills when they’re sent to her home address. “That way, I’m still involved — but she’s the one taking charge.”
Leaving home can be an exciting and scary time for freshmen. For those also taking on the new challenge of total diabetes self-management, it may help to connect with others doing the same. The College Diabetes Network is a nationwide program that puts students with diabetes in touch with each other, creating a support system on campus.
Parents with newly empty nests can often use some extra support as well. Janice, mom of an 18-year-old with type 1 diabetes, says sending her son to an out-of-state college was much tougher on her than it was on him. “It was really hard to let go — especially when so much of my life up to that point had revolved around caring for his diabetes,” she recalls. “I felt very guilty at first, knowing I was getting a break from type 1, and he never would. It also scared me to death to know I had so little control over his care. That was terrifying.”
Keep in mind that your goal as a parent is most likely to raise a successful, healthy and independent human being. “If you have allowed your child a gradual transition to increasing responsibility and self-care,” says Sheth, “you should feel confident in his or her skills. And that should curtail a good deal of your fears.”
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.