As parents of kids with type 1 diabetes, we want to protect our children and do everything we can for them — but at some point, we will have to loosen the reins and turn over some of the responsibilities to them. When children take charge of specific tasks in their diabetes care, it can give them a sense of ownership and independence, boosting their self-esteem. To that end, we asked certified diabetes educator Vandana Sheth, R.D., which tasks children may be able to take over for themselves at each age and stage of development.
Ages 3 to 5
Toddlers and young children can’t do a lot by themselves, but they can still be a part of the process. “Allow preschoolers to help in diabetes management by putting them ‘in charge’ of little tasks — such as placing the meter and lancing device on the table in preparation for blood sugar monitoring,” says Sheth. This can help them gain a sense that they’re participating in their own care.
When Leandra Spradlin’s now 12-year-old daughter Olivia was in this age range, she began to learn how to check her own urine ketones. “It made her feel like a ‘big girl,'” she says.
Ages 6 to 9
During the later childhood years, parents should continue to actively perform diabetes care tasks while gradually encouraging independence under supervision, says Sheth. “Children at this stage are able to start performing more jobs on their own, such as monitoring blood sugar and preparing simple snacks,” she says.
Christina Coleman, whose 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed at age 6, says she lets her daughter test her own blood sugar levels at school. “She has a cell phone so she can check in with us throughout the day and report her levels,” she explains.
Ages 10 to 12
The tween years are a perfect period to give kids more self-management tasks that might make younger children more squeamish. “This is prime time to have them start giving themselves insulin injections, for example,” Sheth says.
Spradlin says it was at age 10 that her daughter learned to do injections.
Ages 13 to 15
“This is a stage of significant change,” warns Sheth. “There might be an increase in risky behaviors and inconsistent meals or snacks.” While teens can still give themselves their own injections and check their blood levels, check in often to make sure these steps are not being neglected.
“I have to text him to remind him, especially if he’s out with friends,” says Shirley Owens of her 14-year-old son. Diagnosed three years ago, he sometimes forgets to test his blood sugar when he’s hanging out with his classmates, says Owens. “I know he thinks I’m being a nag, but if I don’t remind him, I just don’t know if it’s going to get done.”
Ages 16 to 18
Right before college, it’s important to allow teens to be independent and nearly fully responsible for their own diabetes care, says Sheth. This will make you both feel more comfortable and confident when they are out on their own in the coming years.
Lorri Black, who was diagnosed with type 1 at age 15, says that she was doing all her own diabetes care by age 16 — testing, carb-counting and injections. She was also talking regularly to her doctor about her questions and concerns. “As my parents were teaching me about my diabetes, they were also giving me chances to do things on my own,” she recalls.
Sure, it’s hard to let go sometimes. And every child matures at his or her own individual pace. But slowly helping children take over age-appropriate diabetes tasks when they’re developmentally ready is as important to their future well-being as your loving care.
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.