Living with T1D is hard, especially for children, because they are not yet mature enough to understand all the implications of it. So, it is important to not only address their physical but also their mental health needs. Although everyone’s mental health needs are different, there are considerations to be aware of when caring for your young child living with T1D.
When your young child is diagnosed with T1D, they will likely be too little to grasp all of the new terms, routines, and rules thrown at them. There will be an adjustment period in which they are the center of attention of the family. For a while, everything will revolve around helping them adjust to diabetes. As a parent, you will probably feel like you have to move a hundred miles an hour to keep up with all these changes. In the whirlwind that comes with a diagnosis, mental health often falls to the wayside.
Fortunately for you, kids just want to be kids. As a parent you might have a long list of worries and concerns about your child’s condition. Kids, however, are primarily focused on having fun, being treated fairly, and feeling loved.
The most important thing to remember when helping your young child adapt to life with T1D is that your child’s fun doesn’t need to stop. The more “normal” you let your young child be, the less likely they are to feel sad or lonely because of their T1D. Let them pursue all the passions that they otherwise might take interest in. If they want to try a sport, don’t let diabetes be the reason that they cannot. Having hobbies or activities separate from management of their condition will help their mental health remain in a good place.
There will be moments in your child’s life where their fun may be impeded by diabetes management. When they are young, it is important to remind them that this care may only take a few minutes of their day, and it guarantees that they can live healthy. Inform them that being healthy helps you feel happy. With these reminders, your child will understand that their happiness and their health are closely intertwined, and taking care of one helps the other.
These early years are a crucial time to emphasize the impact that physical health can have on mental health. Your child will soon be a hormonal teenager, and you may struggle to build healthy habits from scratch in the adolescent years. By having the family focus on physical and mental wellbeing, you can make everyone feel included AND healthy. This could mean creating routines around physical exercise, sharing what you are thankful for during dinner each night, or taking three minutes to meditate together each day. Create a wellness routine that suits your family!
Not everything will be fair in the eyes of a child living with T1D. For example, other children will get to enjoy cupcakes, cookies, and ice cream for class parties. Your child with T1D may not be able to indulge, or their indulgence may be moderated. In the eyes of a child, this may be a major injustice. When the child senses that they are being unfairly treated, they may lash out with anger or isolate with sadness. Look out for and recognize these behaviors when and if they arise.
Be sure to explain to your child that the idea of “fair” doesn’t apply to everything. Your child’s body is a little bit different on the inside, and that means that eating these sugary treats can make them feel sick. But that doesn’t mean that your child can’t have fun! Work with your child’s teacher to develop substitutes for classroom treats (like stickers, bouncy balls, being the line leader, etc.). The most fair thing is making sure that everyone is safe and healthy, and for your child that looks a little different than it does for other children.
Ultimately, your child wants to feel loved. Your mind might want to permanently shift to a “caring for a patient” setting, but your child won’t necessarily cherish memories of you standing over their injections or site changes. They will, however, remember the days you treated them with all the love a parent has for their child. The times you spend laughing, playing, and bonding with them will build their confidence and sense of security. These can prevent struggles later in their adolescence when their diabetes and their hormonal changes can affect their self esteem.
Even with all of this work that you do to keep your young child’s mental health in check, your child may still struggle with feelings of loneliness, anger, anxiousness, or sadness. That’s why it’s important to give them age-appropriate terms to talk about their mental health. Children understand what it means to be afraid, but they probably don’t know what it means to be anxious.
Once your child is familiar with these emotions and their meanings, encourage them to have open conversations with you whenever they feel them arise. This can make for a great daily routine. As you tuck your child into bed, you can ask them to share the three main emotions they felt throughout the day. If they answer sad, scared, frustrated, or anything similar, ask them to tell you when they felt that way and why. Encourage them to talk and elaborate. If you notice a daily pattern around negative feelings like these, talk to your child’s endocrinologist to see what changes you can make in your management strategy to preserve your child’s physical health while protecting their mental health.
Having regular conversations with your child about emotions allows them a safe way to seek reassurance, comfort, or support. Be sure to set an example by talking clearly and openly about your feelings, too. Children are inquisitive by nature, and your child has probably asked you why you are mad/sad/scared at least once. Rather than brushing off these questions, provide answers in easily-understandable terms. If you create a regular family practice around talking about emotions, you can ensure that your child can securely access the emotional support that they need if their mental health becomes a struggle.
Overall, your child wants to have fun, to be treated fairly, and to feel loved. If you do your best to ensure that these are consistent elements in their life, you can help them live a happy life and protect their mental health.