Diabetes: tips for teenagers

Children and teenagers are most commonly affected by type 1 diabetes, although a growing number of young people are developing type 2 diabetes, a type of diabetes more commonly diagnosed in adults.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease (caused by the body’s own immune system) in which the body attacks its own beta cells (the cells that produce insulin) in the pancreas. This means the pancreas produces little or no insulin to regulate blood sugar, resulting in abnormally high levels of blood sugar. It most commonly develops during childhood, which is why it is also sometimes known as juvenile onset diabetes.

Diabetes in teenagers: 5 tips to help

If you have a teenager with diabetes, it’s important to be aware of some of the issues affecting your teen when it comes to managing their diabetes. Good family communication and problem-solving, along with reduced conflict between parents and teens, can help improve diabetes control. Among adolescents, those with parental involvement tend to have better diabetes control.

Here are 5 tips to help you and your teenager cope with their condition.

1: Promote self-reliance

While your child was growing up, you may have been teaching your child how to master the basics of diabetes management, such as learning to eat regularly, exercise regularly, take their insulin regularly and monitor their blood sugar.

Now is the time to consolidate that learning to encourage your teen to become self-sufficient when it comes to managing their diabetes. For example, older teens are likely to start making decisions about their treatment and management for themselves, rather than relying on you.

And they might prefer to visit their doctor alone, rather than with you. It is here that you may have to trust the expertise and help of your teen’s healthcare professionals. For example, if your teen is uncommunicative after meeting with their doctor, you should try to ensure that you are kept in the communication loop between your teen and their doctor or diabetes educator, always respecting the fact that your teen may now be the one making many of the decisions about their condition.

However, your teen should not be afraid to ask for help if they need it: for example, your teen can apply for special consideration during senior exam time in case their blood sugar becomes difficult to control during that stressful time.

Lots of hospitals and diabetes centres operate diabetes support groups for teenagers (and their parents), so that they can meet with others and share their experiences, and organisations such as Diabetes Australia promote educational camps to help teenagers learn diabetes management skills.

Attending a recognised Diabetes Australia camp can help teenagers with diabetes feel better about their condition, improve their self-esteem and boost their confidence in handling their condition.

2: Understand your teen’s metabolism

During adolescence, it can be very difficult to control blood glucose levels and this could be because of bodily changes that affect your teen’s metabolism.

During puberty, growth spurts and hormonal changes can result in the levels of blood glucose varying from too low to too high.

Sometimes, you may have to encourage your teen to accept that less tightly controlled blood glucose is no one’s fault, but that is not a reason to give up trying to control it.

3: Understand your teen’s lifestyle

Having diabetes should not be an impediment to enjoying life, and it’s important that your teen recognises this and finds strategies to manage their diabetes without affecting their lifestyle.

Adolescence is a time for trying things out — your teen might want to eat takeaway foods, go to parties, and do things on the spur of the moment. And they can. You can help your teen realise that they can have an enjoyable social life and stay within healthy limits, but this can only be achieved by being disciplined about their diabetes.

You can explain that by acting sensibly about their diabetes, with the help of their doctor, dietitian and diabetes educator, your teen actually has more freedom to enjoy life than if they let their diabetes get out of control.

4: Be aware of peer pressure

Although diabetes is a common problem, it is likely that a teen with diabetes will be in a minority at school and when with groups of friends. With adolescence bringing a plethora of physical, social and emotional issues at the best of times, it’s important that you understand what your teen may be going through.

During adolescence, being ‘part of the crowd’ is particularly important and your teen may be embarrassed about having to monitor their blood sugar or take insulin.

Encourage your teen to tell their close friends about their diabetes and offer suggestions as to how these friends could help. For example, your teen could teach their friends what to do if they become hypoglycaemic (where blood sugar becomes too low due to lack of food or too much insulin, resulting in sudden symptoms such as shaking, sweating, headache, hunger, weakness, dizziness, lack of concentration and irritability).

Also, be aware that your comments to other people might make your teen embarrassed, so ask your teen what they would like you to say in front of other people if the subject of their diabetes comes up in conversation.

5: Be realistic and seek help if you need it

Adolescence has its challenges for both parents and teens. You might find that the child who used to comply with everything you suggested gradually becomes unco-operative and may rebel against the routine management of their diabetes by going on food binges, or refusing to monitor their blood sugar levels.

So if you feel that, despite your best efforts, your teen is not managing their diabetes as well as they could, seek the help of your healthcare professional and take advantage of other help where it is available. Organisations such as Diabetes Australia may be able to offer advice and help you to help your teenager maintain control of their condition.

Last Reviewed: 14 October 2014
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References

1. Diabetes in children (revised October 2013). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2014 Mar. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Sep 2014).
2. Australian Diabetes Council; Diabeteskidsandteens.com.au. Information for parents of teens aged 13-17 years. http://www.diabeteskidsandteens.com.au/parents_and_carers_5.html (accessed Sep 2014).
3. Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne; Children’s Hospital Westmead. Caring for diabetes in children and adolescents, 3rd edition 2010. http://video.rch.org.au/diabetes/Diabetes_Book_Third_Edition.pdf (accessed Sep 2014).
4. Diabetes Australia; National Diabetes Services Scheme. myD – for under 25s. Drinking & big nights out (updated 23 Jan 2014). http://www.ndss.com.au/en/MyD/Living-with-Diabetes/Drinking--Big-Nights-Out/ (accessed Sep 2014).
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