6 Ways to Help Your Child Cope With Type 2
When Becky McKeown’s son Isiaah was 5 years old, he was already overweight. She also noticed that he was constantly thirsty—even in the middle of the night. What’s more, he’d developed a velvety ring around his neck.
McKeown, a registered nurse who lives in Mission Viejo, California, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 16. So she pushed the pediatrician to check Isiaah for the disease. When a fasting blood test confirmed type 2 diabetes, McKeown was not surprised. “I hated that I was right,” she says. Isiaah’s doctor prescribed metformin and suggested dietary changes, but within two years he needed insulin.
Being overweight herself, McKeown was careful not to scare Isiaah or embarrass him. “I didn’t want to give him a complex about his weight or make him feel singled out, so I stressed that it would be a team effort,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Mommy and you have to get healthy, so let’s start eating more vegetables and salads.’ ”
How do you get your child to take his health seriously without frightening him or making him feel bad about his body? If he’s already stressed, depressed, or overwhelmed, how do you handle that without minimizing the seriousness of his disease? That can be tricky when dealing with any chronic disease, but type 2 diabetes can be especially fraught with emotion because it’s so closely tied to obesity.
“There’s a lot of blame from the public and sometimes even from teachers, who say things like, ‘If you didn’t eat so many sweets, you wouldn’t have diabetes,’ ” says Carla Cox, PhD, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. That may lead a child to decide that the disease is all his fault. Or, after learning about the possible long-term complications, a child could become fearful and fatalistic.
While you can’t control your child’s emotions, you can play an important role in helping him process his feelings while motivating him to stay on top of his diabetes. Read on to see how.
1. End the blame game.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, some of which aren’t completely understood. Instead of harping on what you or your child might have done “wrong,” focus on accepting that life will be different but that the condition can be managed, says Beverly S. Adler, PhD, CDE, a clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator in Baldwin, New York. The same goes for talk of your child’s blood glucose readings. McKeown says she’s careful not to criticize her son if his level is high, because she wants him to be honest.
2. Set limits, but be reasonable.
It’s your job as a parent to set the stage for a healthy lifestyle, whether that means limiting screen time or making your home a no-soda zone, says Cox. Keep in mind: Being too strict can backfire. Instead of saying, “We’re never having ice cream again,” explain that ice cream is a once-in-a-while treat and that it can’t be a daily dessert.
3. Don’t make kids go it alone.
Even if your child is the only one in the family with diabetes, everyone needs to get on board with lifestyle changes. Try cooking diabetes-friendly meals for the whole family or taking a walk together after dinner. “Parents and children can choose to make healthier lifestyle choices together,” says Adler. “Sharing food and exercise creates a special bond.”
For McKeown and Isiaah, the team approach was crucial. After her son was diagnosed, McKeown overhauled meals and signed both of them up for a carb-counting class. She also enrolled him in a fitness program for kids, and today, six years later, he works with a personal trainer and plays football. Their efforts have paid off: McKeown lost about 40 pounds, and Isiaah’s A1C has gone from 8 percent to 6 percent, sometimes lower.
4. Take baby steps.
“It’s nearly impossible to make a 180 [degree] shift in your behavior overnight,” says Mark Heyman, PhD, CDE, a diabetes psychologist and director of the Center for Diabetes and Mental Health in Solana Beach, California. Trying to do too much at once can make your child feel defeated. “If the doctor said to exercise more, it doesn’t mean running a marathon. Just start with five minutes a day.” Small goals are easier to accomplish, which is empowering.
Depending on how old and mature your child is, this “baby steps” approach may also come into play with blood glucose checks and medication management. Every child is different, but McKeown says she started slowly shifting some of the responsibility for these essential tasks to her son when he was about 8 years old. “I was adamant that he learn to take care of his own health,” she says. “Now that he’s 11, he does all the checks himself.”
5. Talk about the tough stuff.
If your child is being teased about his weight or is struggling to fit in with friends who love fast food, talk it out. You won’t solve every problem, but you might come up with some good solutions, and brainstorming together will serve as a reminder that you’re in his corner. “Youngsters with diabetes who have family support tend to manage their diabetes better and feel better about living with diabetes,” says Adler. She also encourages parents to emphasize that their child is “a person who happens to have type 2 diabetes” in the same way that, say, some kids have asthma or a heart condition. Doing so helps them separate who they are from this illness they have.
6. Enlist extra help.
A certified diabetes educator can offer support as well as practical guidance. If your child is struggling emotionally, seek out a mental health professional (such as a social worker or psychologist) to talk about coping with all the changes. The American Diabetes Association’s Mental Health Provider Directory can help you find someone in your area. Ask your doctor if there are any peer support groups for children with type 2 diabetes in your area. Showing your child that he’s not alone can make a big difference.