From Burned Out Teen to Healthy College Grad: Ways to Help your Child with Type 1 Diabetes

In three short weeks, my daughter with diabetes will don a mortar, walk across a big stage, and accept her college degree.

I’ll be in the audience cheering, like almost any other parent. I say almost because what the gabillion parents around me won’t know is that my daughter has graduated with another very amazing degree, too: one that most cannot see. She’s earned her bachelor’s in living well with Type 1 diabetes.

Four years ago, I might have had some doubt deep down that she could do it. It was then, after all, that I wrote this. My daughter was struggling mightily with diabetes and burn out. Some even hinted that I should not let her go away to school. But thanks to the guidance of an amazing new adult endocrinologist (We love you, Dr. Wonderful!), Lauren’s insistence and my staunch determination that I let her live her life, dammit, despite diabetes, she’ll earn that degree of the heart along with her degree in political communication that day.

Which brings me to think of all the parents with teens and preteens with Type 1 diabetes. Because I know most of you are struggling. I see your clicks on my blog and read the hundreds of comments you keep posting there. I read about your stress on support pages, and I get messages from many of you. And I’d like to now hand you the magic wand I used to make it all work out for my daughter, since we don’t need it any more.

Oh, shoot: there isn’t one. 

No, this was not easy – for her or for me. No, she did not move in on campus, take one look around, toss her hat in the air like Mary Tyler Moore (see how I did that? Diabetes reference and all?), and embrace the world with perfect spunk. But it did turn around. Inch by inch, she – and I – did what we needed to do for her to be what she wanted to be: a happy, busy, fulfilled young adult pursuing her dream career in good health. At somewhat, if you will, peace with her Type 1 diabetes.

Or as I like to say: I sent her off to college with a low GPA and a high A1C. She came home with a high GPA and a low A1C. No magic wand, but here are a few things that helped us get there. Here’s hoping they help you.

It’s their diabetes. Much as we parents have embraced helping our children all these years and feeling like we have to watch over them and never live our own lives so they can be safe, at a certain age, it becomes less our fight and more theirs. By college, it needs to be theirs. I suggest, as early as you can: stop the nagging. Just stop it completely.

This is very hard. It took me a couple of years to stop. But listen, while they still need your oversight, you can simply look at their meter to get your answer (and then your challenge is not to nag but just to say “Oh I see you were not able to check at lunch today! A check now would be great! Lalalala” This is not easy but you can do it). 

When they come in the door, learn to care first about their school or party or sporting event. Don’t ask about diabetes. In time, they will bring it up. Or not. You don’t always have to force them to relive everything.

By the time I finally got the hang of this, Lauren was in college. And I noticed it improved not just our conversations but also our relationship. She was no longer on guard, waiting for me to bring up diabetes stuff. And I was thinking more about the rest of her life, and enjoying nagging her about that. (ha!)

Practice letting them go: Your teen needs space from you. And not just for a few hours. Letting them sleep over somewhere or go on the overnight school trip isn’t just good for their maturity, it’s good for you and them for when it’s time to go to college. This is a tough jump if you are a night checker (or a few times a night checker). But don’t assume it cannot be done, and do not say it cannot be done. You want your child to grow up and live independently. (You do! You really do.) What you need to do for this is talk to your child’s medical team about how to let them do such things. And listen: listen to them. They have seen this all before. They know your child’s diabetes, and they want your child to be safe, but thriving. Put the trust in them to help you trust a situation like this. The more you do it, the more ready you will be when your child is ready to go off to college.

Don’t expect perfection. Or better said: Redefine “perfection”: Sure, it would be great to say any kid going off to college should have an A1C below (insert number that seems impossible), and should be willing to check eight to eight hundred times a day. It would be fun to think “I can train their roommate in glucagon and have the entire campus dotted with emergency kits and juice boxes.” But the reality is: things probably won’t be as you’d dream.

Both my daughters (my child without diabetes broke us in on college life first) had lame first-year roommates. My daughter with diabetes? Hers could have cared less. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Because in both cases, my girls went out in the hall, said hello to some other kids and met their BFF’s. Those were the people my daughter with diabetes lived with in the following years. Those were the friends who wanted to learn about diabetes and make sure she had what she needed. It all worked out. A kind of perfection I did not understand before.

And her diabetes care? Her adult endo introduced her to the “What About Bob”  method (I call it that – not him!): baby steps. Clearly, she wasn’t heading off to college with an ideal daily plan. So, he suggested taking little steps she was willing to try. He opened her up to a world where “success” wasn’t seemingly unreachable; where she didn’t have a million chances a day to “fail.” From that came a new sense of being “good” about her diabetes. And in little time, she was doing more and more. Baby steps toward success.

She also, over the years, was thriving in so many other ways. The D-mom in me used to look at her and see a lab sheet and think “things are not perfect.” I learned, instead, to look at the all of her. Was she happy? Yes. Was she loving her classes and social life? Yes. Was she contributing to the world in a good way? Yes. One day, waiting outside at her endo’s (I still go to take her shopping after. Tradition), he came out and mentioned to me that her A1C had eeked up a tiny bit (nowhere near her burn out days. But still, he knew how my mind worked and he was helping me work on this perfection thing). “Listen,” he said to me, in the kindest of ways. “She’s doing everything she is supposed to be doing in life right now. Everything is great.” A new perfection. I wish I’d gotten that sooner in life.

Laugh.  In the stress and the worry and the angst of raising a teen, don’t forget to laugh. Because really: it is kind of funny. Sometimes, my daughter would sound exactly like Linda Blair (in the Exorcist. Not when she tried to become a regular teen actress. Although both were scary). So we’d call her that. Sometimes, when she is low, we like to yell “Shelby! Drink the juice!” just because it’s fun. Laughing helps even in the roughest of times.

So there you have it, a few tips that got us to our upcoming day of glory. I’m going to cheer so loud for her, but here is a secret for you:

I’ll be cheering for me, too. Because I did it. I helped her grow up, get through those teen years and transition to a self-sufficient, healthy, incredibly happy young adult.

Now, if she can just land a job.

Moira McCarthyMoira McCarthy was pursuing her dream career in active sports journalism when her young daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1997. While she continued on that route, writing for the New York Times Sports and Leisure Division, Snow Country Magazine, Ski Magazine and becoming a daily newspaper sports columnist for the Boston Herald, she also began dedicating much of her life to diabetes advocacy and education. Author of the best-selling “Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Parent Survival Guide”, and “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Raising Children with Diabetes,” she is a long-time JDRF volunteer. She chaired JDRF’s Children’s Congress, was National Chair of Advocacy for three years and National Chair of Outreach, and was named the 2007 JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. She speaks national about raising children with diabetes and thriving in that life. Her daughter, who graduates college in May of 2014, is her proof that people certainly can.

 

Comments (2)

  1. Sean Stanford at

    Really nice… proud of you and Lauren

  2. Beth McCrary at

    Love you Moira and as always your advice and insight is so very valuable.  Thank you for all you do for people living with Type 1 Diabetes.

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