Just For Parents

Helping Parents of Teens with Type 1 Diabetes

Six Important Facts
Every Parent with a Type 1 Teen Should Know

1. No, this isn't easy

Even when they don't have diabetes, parenting teens can be tough. Teens are in that quirky stage of being "almost-adults". They may be quite convinced that they are smart and mature enough already, but they don't yet having the skills, experience and understanding truly necessary for being a responsible adult. This often leads to conflicts between parents, who want to protect their teens and help them take better care of themselves, and teens, who often feel like they are being treated like a child and want to be more independent than their parents permit.

So the stage is set for an old fashioned tug-of-war. Sometimes the battle occurs around the little things, and sometimes over the big things as well. Sometimes it is hard to predict where or when a conflict will arise. And having a teen with type 1 diabetes makes things even more complicated; the stakes are high and the consequences of poor teen behavior can be serious. Parents often ask:

  • How much independence can my teen handle?
  • When do I need to set a firm limit and how do I do it successfully without a battle?
  • Why can't my teen understand that I am only trying to help?
  • How can my spouse or partner and I figure out how to agree on how to manage our teen?
  • What effect is all of this having on my other children?

These are tough questions, and there are no easy answers. No wonder that parents can become so stressed out! So if this is how you feel, please remember that most parents with a teen with type 1 diabetes feel the same way. You aren't alone!

2. Teen brains are not like adult brains

Regardless what teens say, teens do not think the way adults do, simply because they are teens and their brains have not reached maturity. Teens tend to not consider longer-term consequences (so they aren't too worried about the possibility of long-term complications from diabetes), they live more in the here and now and they may not have a reasonable or consistent perspective on the future.

They are less able than adults to delay getting what they want, and they tend to be much more emotionally reactive and emotionally variable than adults. All of this is normal and is a biological result of growing through the teen years. So if your teen acts like this, remember that it is simply part of being a teen.

3. Conflict is to be expected

It is natural for there to be ongoing struggles and conflicts between parents and teens about independence, planning ahead and managing escalating feelings. These are NORMAL parts of most parent-teen relationships. Teens often over-respond emotionally to parent limits, suggestions and wishes, and they often do so unexpectedly. Sometimes, even a small suggestion provokes a huge response; and sometimes the same suggestion leads to no response. It can be very hard to predict what will happen and when.

The trick is not to take these conflicts and battles personally: they are not a reflection of your adequacy as a parent, and they have nothing to do with your teen's maturity, intelligence, or health.

4. Trying to improve your teen's attitude about diabetes is almost impossible

If your teen doesn't seem to have a "good" attitude about diabetes (for example, perhaps he/she doesn't seem worried enough about long-term complications), please understand that your teen is unlikely to suddenly change his/her attitude. No matter how much you might want this to happen, your teen will not start to like diabetes or suddenly worry about it as much as you do.

Most likely, your teen is more interested in and worried about other things—like friends, sports, popularity, clothes, and just wanting to be like everyone else. Don't expect this to change anytime soon! And remember that this is not a shortcoming of your teen in particular; it is the natural way that teens think!

5. Aiming for "perfect" blood sugars is a recipe for frustration and conflict

Your blood glucose goal for your teen should be a healthy "good enough". Perfect blood sugars are never going to happen, there is no PERFECT goal and a perfect goal is not necessary.

You, your teen and your health care team should have a clear agreement about aiming for a specific A1C target that is just right for your teen at this time; low enough to keep him/her safe from long-term problems, high enough to keep him safe from hypoglycemia, and a number that is possible for your teen to reach at this time. This goal may change over time; a goal for the present does not mean a goal forever! The trick is to set a realistic goal that your teen can meet NOW.

6. Teens need more support than they are likely to realize or admit

Your teen may need more help with problem solving, accountability and support than you or your teen thinks is needed. Yes, many teens are quite knowledgeable about diabetes; in many cases, they may even know more than their parents or their doctors. And they will be certain to let you know in no uncertain terms that they are the real experts when it comes to their own diabetes. But that does not necessarily mean that they know how to use that information thoughtfully to help themselves! Many teens are bright and have all the facts, but do they know how to think through and solve diabetes problems as they arise? Do they always know how to make a good choice when diabetes care comes into conflict with a busy social life? Even for older teens, parents need to stay involved as a full-fledged member of their teen's diabetes team. No matter how smart, knowledgeable and experienced they are with diabetes, and no matter how much they complain about your involvement, they need you to be there.