I was having dinner out with a friend recently. As we chatted while waiting for our meals, I kept my phone out on the table, periodically glancing at the screen to check my 13-year-old son’s blood sugar data, being beamed to me in real time. I noticed his numbers were trending low, so I made a quick call to remind him to prophylactically drink a juice box.
My friend wasted no time in telling me how I was “going to screw up my kid with my hovering.”
She knew my son has type 1 diabetes. But she didn’t get it.
We all want our kids to become independent; it’s just scarier for us parents of kids with diabetes. Our children have a fundamental, physiologic vulnerability. The technology we have now for managing type 1 is truly amazing, but it can also have a downside. We can see blood sugars in real time, 24/7, thanks to continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) with data-sharing capability. At 3 a.m. I can glance at my phone, and if I see an in-range blood sugar, I can roll over with peace and confidence; I know my son is safe. If I see something else, well… that’s when I wrestle with the issue of whether I have become a “helicopter” mom.
What is helicoptering anyway? Is it always something bad? No. Not according to the folks who make those state-of-the-art defense helicopters that keep us all safe. One particular model (yes, I looked it up) is described as a “multirole combat aircraft utilizing… technology to combine the vertical performance of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft.” It’s a one-of-a-kind, immensely powerful and breathtakingly versatile piece of well-oiled machinery, capable of switching gears at the drop of a hat.
Or maybe… at the drop of a blood sugar. This is the kind of helicopter that T1D parents remind me of. We have trained ourselves how to mobilize in an instant. We know when to hover — to hang back, suspended and observant — and when to swoop in with lightning speed when there’s trouble on the horizon. Many of us have learned this skill the hard way. In my case, I know what a kid looks like when he’s about to pass out from going low. I know how it feels when the glucometer just says “HIGH” instead of a number. I know what ketones smell like on my son’s breath. I know all of this from my “helicoptering.”
I, for one, think that helicoptering has gotten a bad rap. As an outreach volunteer for the JDRF, I assist newly diagnosed families still reeling from the emotions of an emergent hospital stay. They’re desperate to get back to some level of family normalcy, but they’re worried and exhausted. They’re nervous about overnight blood sugar, carb counting, and sending their kids with diabetes back to the unknown at school. The last thing I would do is shame any of them for hovering.
Hovering is exactly what we all initially need to do. It’s how we learn the ins and outs of this complicated condition.
Instead of shaming parents who need to keep a close watch on their children, we should all try and behave as loving copilots. Especially if we think our fellow moms need to loosen their grip on the controls. What I tell new T1D parents is to take the time to teach your children what you’re learning. Depending on your child’s age, share what you’re discovering about carb counting, giving injections, insulin dosing, and preparing for exercise. This will ultimately help you move beyond hovering into something more collaborative. Help your child to become as capable as possible, and together you will become a powerful team.
It’s advice I need to remind myself of sometimes. Like a few weeks ago when I read an essay my son wrote for English class about his love of bike riding. We live in an area chock-full of scenic bike trails, and he described how he felt exploring his town with the wind in his face. I loved knowing that he relished this free time, but I also felt sad. I watched him dutifully pack up his insulin pump, phone, and juice boxes for a long ride, and the poor kid was quite literally weighed down with all that stuff. This boy just needed to be free and fly.
Perhaps I had been too overbearing. After reading his essay I thought: I’ve got to lighten his load, both physically and mentally. My husband and I went to the bike shop and bought him the coolest European insulated bag that straps neatly onto his bike. We also had the bike outfitted with lights for riding at dusk. Since he’s a history buff we got him a neat bell with the logo of a WWII Spitfire. He loved it all! It was the ultimate satisfaction for us to see him hop on his bike, free and easy, without all that weight on his back.
Soon after, I noticed his CGM alarm going off while he was out on a ride with a friend. Do I call? His blood sugar was in the 40s; I couldn’t resist. He was already treating it when he answered the phone. Perfect. But then… I made the mistake of calling him again 15 minutes later to see if his number had gone up. He told me, “How am I supposed to get home if I have to keep stopping to answer the phone!?”
He was right. He had the situation firmly in hand. No swooping in needed.
I apologized as soon as he got home. I worry, but I know that he has the tools he needs to take care of himself.
I still think helicoptering gets a raw deal. In due time, when you’ve laid a solid foundation, your child will be able to take off and fly on his own. Until then, let’s cut each other some slack for our initial hovering. We all have a fundamental need to keep our kids safe and healthy. They know they can rely on us. We just need to show them that we can rely on them too.
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.