If only cupcakes and piñatas were still the problem. There’s lots of advice out there about how to handle birthday parties after your child is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. But for parents of newly diagnosed teenagers, parties come with a whole different set of concerns.
When they’re too old for a chaperone but too new at type 1 diabetes to fly solo, here’s how to keep the party safe for your newly diagnosed teen.
Face Your Fears
Is your teen really ready to return to social activities like concerts, dances, hangouts, and sleepovers that don’t provide much adult supervision? And are you?
In answering these questions, it’s okay to acknowledge fear. “When a teen is diagnosed with T1D, it can be scary and overwhelming for the entire family,” says Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., a certified diabetes educator and pediatric psychologist in the Childhood and Adolescent Diabetes Program at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC.
Fear, however, should not be the deciding factor in when and how your child gets back into the social swing of things. As Monaghan notes, “It can take a while for everyone to feel comfortable with the new demands of diabetes care, but in the long term, T1D should not prevent teens from participating in activities they enjoy.”
To keep social activities in perspective, Moira M., a Massachusetts mom whose daughter with T1D is now in her twenties, learned to ask herself one key question. “If my daughter wanted to go to a party or somewhere with her friends, I would think… is this something I would let her do without diabetes? [If yes…] Then it’s okay for her to do with diabetes. We’ll do what it takes to make it work.”
Signs of Readiness
Monaghan recommends letting your child’s comfort with care tasks serve as your guide for how to prep after accepting that first post-diagnosis invitation. Teen parties generally lack the same level of adult supervision as parties for younger kids, so do a quick assessment: Can your child count carbohydrates in foods and apply this information? Does your child perform blood sugar checks and make corrections as needed? Does your child know how to recognize a low — and how to ask for help?
It takes practice to master these skills, and this is where you come in. “Letting your teen perform care tasks independently in their day-to-day routine will help [both parent and child] know that going to a party or a sleepover would be safe,” Monaghan notes. You can also do a test run in which your child takes care of all tasks in a three- to five-hour window (i.e., a typical party length).
Are care tasks difficult for your child, or is your child resisting? Check in with your diabetes care team for additional hands-on instruction and/or specific tips for the type of event your child plans to attend.
Making the Call
If the event is the sort that’s hosted by adults — say, a middle school pool party — call the host parent to find out how long the party is expected to last, what food will be served, and the level of adult supervision to expect.
You can fill the parent in at this time about your child’s diabetes and how to respond if he or she needs help at the party, including how to recognize and treat lows. Follow up with an email that includes your contact details and all needed emergency information.
As another layer of protection — and for older teens’ unchaperoned events — the buddy system can help. Teaching some close friends about diabetes can help your teenager create a stronger safety net should anything unexpected happen. “It is for their safety that a close friend or two [who will also attend the party] knows what to do in case of an emergency… including how to notice signs of low blood sugar, how to help with insulin if needed, and when and how to seek help in an emergency,” says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in the Chicago area who works with children managing chronic illness.
Set Clear Expectations
Give your teen clear and simple guidelines about how you expect him or her to manage type 1 when away from home. “Teens need to know and accept that diabetes supplies must be with them at all times… and you and your teen both need to understand when and how you will communicate about diabetes care,” advises Monaghan.
For example, your teen may want to be in touch with you throughout the party for help with diabetes-related decisions, such as verifying carb counts or dosing insulin correctly, or to let you know their blood sugar number. “Technology can be really helpful for these brief check-ins — phoning, texting, video calling, etc., offer lots of ways to connect. There are even diabetes-specific emojis designed just for these situations,” notes Monaghan.
Additionally, technologies like continuous glucose monitors (CGM) can share real-time data so that parents can see blood sugar trends while their teens are out.
Don’t Expect Perfection
This first foray back into “normal life” is an important moment for your child — and for you. Helping your teen resume his or her regular social activities is an important way to show that life with diabetes doesn’t have to be that different from life without it.
Still, be prepared that it might not be a perfect moment. You and your child can war-game your plans down to the number of carbs in a single piece of double-layer cake… and things may go off without a hitch. Or they might not. And if they don’t, that’s okay.
As Moira found, “Don’t expect perfection from your child in these situations, and know that you can always learn from any bumps in the road. The important thing is getting life back to normal.”
That’s something to celebrate!
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.