Being a teenager is not an easy job. But being the parent of a teenager? That’s a whole different pay grade. I have a lot of memories from my teenage years, but thankfully, as I creep up on my late 20s, a lot of the tougher, more embarrassing memories have begun to fade. I am now proud to say that not every move, door slam, and sassy comeback is fueled by my hormones. And I’m even prouder to say that I no longer feel the need to decorate every single one of my binders and textbooks with male catalog models.
Seventeen, specifically, is a significant age for teenagers. There are a lot of firsts. We get our driver’s licenses, see rated-R movies, visit and apply to colleges, and if our parties get busted for noise complaints, the police are legally allowed to ask us questions… “Really, officer, we were just playing board games!”
Most will agree that at 17, on top of all the excitement, there’s an inherent vulnerability that sometimes follows us around like the rain cloud over Eeyore’s head. A cloud that for me, personally, is something I will never be able to forget. Why? Because despite all of the amazing “firsts” I experienced at 17, I was also told, “Oh, by the way, your body, mind, and spirit will never be the same again, because you have type 1 diabetes.” (Read more about that day here.)
I’m very aware of the unique set of challenges that parents of a teenager with type 1 — especially a newly diagnosed one — face on a daily basis. Looking back at my experiences over the past 11 years, there are three key memories that I want to share to help provide some perspective about what your teenager might be going through.
As a disclaimer, I am also very aware that every family dynamic is different. Everyone’s experience with diabetes is different. By no means is any of this clinical or medical advice, it’s simply a few themes that have stuck with me throughout my journey from the biggest diabetes denier, to beginning to embrace it, to becoming a very vocal advocate, writer, and community builder for young people with diabetes through my blog, IHavetheSugars.com.
Help Instead of Scold.
As a 17-year-old, when someone told me “no,” I said “whatever” and I did it anyway. I simply did not have the capacity to think about long-term consequences. I have never been a reckless person, but I was and still can be at times a little shortsighted. Fat chance that I could recognize cause-and-effect scenarios like, “If I keep over-correcting lows with frosting and pretzels, I’m really going to regret it in three months when I gain eight pounds.” Nope. Instead I thought, “WOW, this is a very unfamiliar and very SCARY feeling, and I want it to go away immediately so I’m going to eat everything in sight until I feel better.”
Of course my parents would make suggestions on how to navigate this better. But that type of advice simply didn’t work on teenage Libby. I was far too sensitive, and being nagged about something that I was convinced I simply could not help wasn’t great for my morale. Statements like, “Libby, you shouldn’t eat so much junk food when you’re low, there are other ways to treat it,” would have only been answered with, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HORRIBLE THIS FEELS,” while I shoved another marshmallow in my face.
At the end of the day, I really needed to learn on my own the consequences of these bad habits. And trust me, I learned! But lecturing, babying, or guilting me simply would have resulted in lowered self-esteem and even more emotionally driven decision-making. If you’re struggling with this as a parent, and you want to have more control over how your kid is correcting lows, try not to put junk in the pantry if you can help it. In our low-crazed stupors, we will find it, and we will devour it, and we will make it disappear particularly fast if it’s being saved for something really, really important, muahahaha. #EvilHungryTeenagers
Likewise, try saying, “I want to make this easier for you, because although I don’t know how this feels, I do know how stressful this responsibility is.” It goes over a lot better than, “I want to make sure you’re doing it right.”
Don’t Force a New Device.
I didn’t have a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) until a year ago. This meant that for nine years, nobody was tracking my blood sugar while I was at school, traveling, or running around on the soccer field. It also meant that for nine years, aside from my insulin pens and eventual pump, I didn’t have a device stuck in my skin reminding me that I had diabetes. I had to test and monitor everything on my own, before class, on airplanes, and at halftime. I was 100 percent responsible for my own body, no matter what. My parents would inquire, and I would snip back, “I’ve got it under control!” like the sassy little i-n-d-e-p-e-n-d-e-n-t lady that don’t need no snoopy mom. (Full disclosure: I really did need my snoopy mom, I was just in that “phase.”)
In fact, I look back now and think, “How did I survive that time?!” The CGM has been a dream come true, but for people just learning the diabetes ropes or going through a particularly vulnerable time, it can be a very tricky thing to adapt to. The “continuousness” of it all can really impact our mental health. Accepting our bodies as they change is hard enough, but when we have to stick a bunch of devices to them and be constantly reminded whether we are — or are not — doing a “good enough” job, it can be extremely taxing.
For me, getting the hang of diabetes before adding extra tech helped me gain awareness of my physical self. I actively tried to train myself to feel highs and lows as they were happening in order to minimize disruptions in my life. I almost envy how intuitive and independent I was pre-CGM.
No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to stop every single high and low from happening. Your child’s numbers are never going to be perfect. (In fact, what is “perfect”?) Yes, some lows are going to be really scary and really dangerous, but it’s imperative that all of us learn how to treat them when we’re out in the wild with no safety net in sight. It makes us stronger, more resilient, and more responsible in the long run
Expect a Marathon, Not a Sprint.
Diabetes is permanent. It’s forever. And to be perfectly honest, it took me one and a half years of high school, four years of college, four boyfriends, five trips abroad, three years of post-college life, two cities, and three jobs for me to truly find myself after my diagnosis with diabetes.
It wasn’t until I was 23 that I finally decided to dip my toes into this diabetes-community pool, and nothing anybody said or did could have changed that timeline. I had to want it for myself. And when I did, everything changed. I can’t believe the world and my family were so patient with me. But I’m incredibly grateful that they were. Because no one forced me or made me get involved until I was really ready, this entire journey feels much sweeter, because it’s completely my own. I have finally met people that speak my language, that truly understand what this is like to manage, to joke with, to cry with, and most importantly, to take the pressure off of my parents and loved ones without diabetes to have answers to things that aren’t in their job description.
So if you’re feeling frustrated, confused, or worried that your teenager isn’t necessarily embracing their diabetes as quickly or in the way you had imagined, try to let it breathe. Support them and empower them, but know that with time, it will all fall into place. The physical element of management is a nonnegotiable step in making sure that diabetes stays in a safe space. But the emotional and mental elements of acceptance are the fragile pieces that will eventually place themselves organically. Just know that no matter what stage you and your teenager are in with it, it is a living, breathing journey, and with time and experience, it does get easier.
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.