Supporting a Child with Type 1 Diabetes

Learning your child has a chronic disease is never easy. But after a type 1 diabetes diagnosis, there is a lot you can do to help them better manage their condition.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disorder that affects less than 5% of people in the U.S. With this type of diabetes, the immune system attacks special cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Without insulin, the body cannot get the energy it needs from food, and blood sugar can get dangerously high.

While there’s no cure for type 1 diabetes, there are good treatments that can allow your child to lead a long, healthy life. Learn more about how to support a child with diabetes.

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How to Comfort Someone with Diabetes

A type 1 diabetes diagnosis can be overwhelming — for both you and your child. After all, it is a disease that will require lifelong management. That’s why, one of the best ways of supporting a child with diabetes is to simply say, “You’ve got this.”

How much management will fall on you or your child depends on your child’s age and maturity level. You can help by keeping a positive attitude and learning all you can about effective disease management. That way, you can better help your child lead a fun, active life.

Learning the Ins and Outs of Type 1 Diabetes Management

When supporting a child with diabetes, it helps to know the best ways to manage the disease. Your child will now require insulin therapy — but they’ll also need to make some important lifestyle changes.

After diagnosis, your child will meet their diabetes care team. This team usually includes an endocrinologist (a doctor specializing in hormones like insulin), a diabetes educator, a nutritionist, and a social worker. They will work with you and your child to help you:

  • Learn how to check your blood sugar level — and how to respond to the results.
  • Recognize the symptoms of high (hyperglycemia) and low (hypoglycemia) blood sugars.
  • Make appropriate changes your diet.
  • Learn how to count carbohydrates.
  • Understand the difference between long- and short-acting insulin — and when to use them.
  • Give or take insulin shots, or use an insulin pump.
  • Learn about the importance of exercise and how it can affect blood glucose levels.
  • Become more aware of how stress, illness, and menstrual cycles may affect blood sugar levels.
  • Support your child’s mental health as they learn to live with a chronic illness.
  • Create a school management plan so you can be sure your child is well cared for even when you aren’t there.

There’s a lot to learn. But your diabetes care team can guide you as you move forward. They’re there to answer any questions you may have and to adjust treatment as needed.

Can Diabetes Affect a Child’s Behavior?

In short, yes — particularly when it comes to poorly controlled blood sugar. When it’s too low or too high, it can have powerful effects on cognition, mood, and behavior.

For example, research suggests high blood glucose levels, or blood sugars above 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) over extended periods of time, can lead to “externalizing behaviors.” These types of behaviors include aggression, overactivity, or conduct problems both in and outside the house.

Low blood sugar, on the other hand, can lead to feelings of lethargy, weakness, confusion, and low mood. Children with blood sugars, usually under 50 mg/dL may even act like they are drunk. If the low blood sugar persists, they could pass out or have a seizure.

But it’s not just high or low blood sugar that can cause problems. Just having type 1 diabetes can lead to a decline in mental health. As your child tries to navigate this new way of life, they may become more withdrawn, angry, or anxious.

Your diabetes care team can help you find ways to support your child’s mental and emotional well-being.

Can My Child with Diabetes Have a Normal Life?

Remember that you and your child are in this together. Your support can make or break your child’s Type 1 diabetes management plan. While living with type 1 diabetes isn’t easy, there’s no reason why your child can’t lead a normal, active life.

That starts with helping your child learn how to manage their condition on their own. Your involvement will depend on their age and maturity level. But as early as possible, spend time helping your child:

  • Make healthier food choices.
  • Count carbohydrates and determine appropriate insulin doses.
  • Consider new technologies, like continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) and insulin pumps, to make management easier.
  • Keep a food journal to better understand which foods affect blood sugars the most.
  • Ask for help when they need it.
  • Know that a particular blood glucose level is not “good” or “bad” — it’s just telling them what’s needed to better manage blood sugar levels.
  • Always have snacks on hand to deal with low blood sugars.
  • Talk to teachers, coaches, and friends about type 1 diabetes — and help them understand the signs of low and high blood sugars.
  • Understand that diabetes management is a journey and they will need to make adjustments along the way.

As a parent, you can also help your child by learning as much as you can about type 1 diabetes management. You are in a better position to take the journey with your child when you:

  • Model healthy eating behaviors and regular physical activity.
  • Encourage your child to get involved with sports and other activities.
  • Give your child the opportunity to take the lead on making management decisions — but step in when necessary.
  • Make the most of your child’s diabetes care team. This means asking questions, letting them know about issues, and getting help when needed.
  • Ask your child’s diabetes care team about the latest technologies, like CGMs and insulin pumps, to help them become more independent.
  • Acknowledge frustration but don’t let it derail good blood sugar management.
  • Let your child know that despite type 1 diabetes, they can lead an active, fun-filled life.

One more thing: don’t forget to find some support for you, too. When you are at your best, you can better ensure your child will get what they need to be successful.

A chronic disease diagnosis can be overwhelming. But with the right team and tools in place, you can give them a strong support network. This will give your child with type 1 diabetes what they need to survive — and thrive.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.