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Teens, Diabetes & Self-Esteem

Helping kids stay confident through adolescence

Have you ever worried how a teen living with type 1 diabetes gets through that difficult time, known as adolescence, with his or her self-esteem in good shape? I know I have. As a d-mom myself and author most recently of Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For ParentsI can certainly tell you the bad news: teens, as a group, are often a pretty confused, emotional, stressed-out bunch. When you consider all they face: peer pressure, feelings of exclusion, hormonal moments, frustration with wanting to be treated like adults but without actually being full-fledged adults, you might imagine that adding diabetes into the mix might feel daunting.

After all, our teens living with diabetes not only are encouraged by parents and healthcare professionals to care for themselves constantly, but they may also use diabetes as a built-in scapegoat for what goes wrong in their lives. I know I’ve heard a few teens think a few of these thoughts: Left out of a party? Must have been the diabetes. Picked on at school? I bet it’s diabetes. Not make the sports team? Has to be because of diabetes. It’s easy to see how a teen might come to that conclusion, and then how a teen might rebel against their diabetes as a result.

But I can also tell you the good news. Some research indicates that teens with diabetes may experience the same quality of life as teens without diabetes. And, personally, my daughter made it through those tough teen years and on to college and adulthood…and we both survived with self-esteem intact.

So how can a parent help their child who is an almost-adult? I say arm him or her with protection. Just as we might give our kids healthy food and nutrients to help build strong bodies, we need to give them something more to help them emotionally. I call that something extra “Vitamin S-E.” S-E for “self esteem,” or better yet, “self-efficacy.” I believe a teen who lives with diabetes and gets a strong dose of “Vitamin S-E” will likely be a teen who can better handle the hormonal years.

Marisa Hilliard, Ph.D., a clinical pediatric psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, says she sees, in her practice, pre-teens and teens often feeling hurt, bullied, or left out because of diabetes. But she wonders if that is always the case. “It may just be a case of being a pre-teen or a teen,” she says. “In other words: this could be happening even without diabetes along.”

But, she adds, parents need to take it seriously. And, as is always the case, being pro-active helps.

Hilliard suggests that parents help their child build self-efficacy by working, from a young age, at helping them know the things they need to do and can do to live a good life. “It’s kind of like ‘diabetes self-esteem,’” says Hilliard. “Kids sometimes think ‘oh, it’s because of my diabetes (that I’m feeling left out or picked on) so I’ll just ignore it.” It helps if teens can see that by taking care of their diabetes, they will feel a level of success, Hilliard adds.

It is true, though, that other teens can be brutal. Feeling overwhelmed themselves, teens sometimes grab onto anything to lash out at others to seemingly boost their own self-worth. One Massachusetts boy living with T1 experienced taunts from other teens, based on television commercials they had seen. His mother’s response? “We just kept telling him to embrace how silly they were; how little they actually knew,” said the mom, who wished to remain anonymous. “And we told him: feeling bad physically would only make him feel worse emotionally.”

Hilliard suggests that parents find a way to boost their child’s self-efficacy at any moment they can. This can be a challenge for parents, but potentially more so for the parent of a teen living with diabetes, since teens in general tend to struggle with daily care. But boost you must, she said.

“Catch your kids doing something ‘right,’” she says. “And acknowledge it. Even if it’s just ‘hey! You were able to do that one check today!’ Catch it, acknowledge it and celebrate it. It’s nice, as a kid, to know that someone saw that you did something right. That can be good for the parent too. Instead of focusing on what might have been wrong, seeing what was right just makes you feel good.”

Another key, Hilliard says, is staying directly involved in their diabetes care. “You need a parent to stay actively involved in some appropriate way,” she says. Checking your older teen’s blood sugar for them might not make sense, says Hilliard. “But finding a way, all through the teen years, to stay in the loop helps the entire situation. Teens need to know you are there for them. This helps them know that without you even saying it.”

Hilliard also suggests bringing friends on board. “Even if you can get just one friend to come over and really learn all there is to learn about diabetes in your life, it can make a huge difference,” she says. “Once people understand, they tend to care. And having someone who cares can help.”

What happens when a child develops a strong sense of self-efficacy? Angel Nieves, a high school student from New York, is a great example. Angel plays football and lives with type 1 diabetes. But his teammates used to pick on him, and one day, as a “joke,” some of them stole his glucose meter and supplies out of his football bag.

Funny, right? Not. Angel found out, got his gear back and told his mom. His mom, enraged, was ready to tear the team down. But Angel had another idea: He asked his coach to let him do a “diabetes 101” lesson at a team practice. Calmly and bravely, Angel explained diabetes and how it impacted his life, as well as why he needed those supplies to play best for the team.

Angel was never picked on again. And there you have it, “Vitamin S-E” in action. Teens living with diabetes can really benefit from a large dose.

Read more parent-adolescent coping techniques from Moira McCarthy here.

Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, McCarthy has appeared on CNN LiveGood Morning America, and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and her latest Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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