How to manage the mental health of your non-diabetic children
When a new child is born into a family, it’s typical for the older siblings to take on some new and daunting behaviors as they fight for their share of attention. The same can happen when a child is diagnosed with diabetes. A newly diagnosed child with T1D will likely be the familial center of attention for the next several months (or even years). It’s natural to rally around the child facing a chronic illness. It is important to monitor your T1D child’s emotional wellbeing. At the same time, you cannot lose sight of the wellness of their sibling or siblings.
While maintaining the mental health of your child with T1D can feel like an all-consuming task, their siblings may feel jealous of all the attention that child receives. Here are some ways to avoid making your non-diabetic children feel frustrated, neglected, or generally upset with the new changes.
Establish and Maintain Family Rituals
As you teach your child with T1D all the new ways to take care of their mental and physical health, be sure to include your non-diabetic children as well. Create a family-wide emphasis on exercise, quiet time, eating well, talking about feelings, and getting enough sleep. Lead these discussions with your children by explaining that these are keys to a happy and healthy life, regardless of their diagnosed conditions.
Create routines like evening walks, morning stretches, and brunch time discussions about emotions. Try different methods to help your family get moving more and talking through your feelings together. These will help you to bond with your children, and your children to bond with each other. When these healthy habits are requirements for everyone, it creates less distance between your diabetic and non-diabetic child. No one will feel singled out or excluded.
Educate All of Your Children About Diabetes
Your non-diabetic children will not feel comfortable admitting this, but they will grow tired of hearing constant conversations about insulin, late night hypos, ketones, and all of the other diabetes-related jargon. They may feel excluded when conversations that they do not understand happen around them. To alleviate these feelings, be sure to invite the whole family into some of these discussions when possible.
It’s important to explain what lows and highs look like, and how to treat each case immediately. Be sure that your non-diabetic children understand basic diabetes care principals. This helps them make sense of the moments when you will need to drop everything to treat your T1D child’s lows. Some children may even enjoy feeling helpful in these moments, and they may run to grab a juice box for your child with T1D. Be sure to acknowledge and reward their efforts to help manage your child’s diabetes.
Overall, this education is helpful for your non-diabetic children because it helps them grasp what is and is not a priority. You want all of your children to feel safe coming to you for a heart-to-heart, but you need to set the precedent that there are times when treating the T1D child is the most important task at hand. That certainly doesn’t mean that your non-diabetic child’s mental and physical health needs do not matter. When you make all your children aware of the urgency behind certain moments with diabetes, they can better discern when is and is not a good time to have a deep conversation.
Create a Safe Space for Conversation
The emotional toll of watching a sibling face something that can be daunting and scary does weigh on all your children. They may be afraid of developing diabetes themselves (which is highly unlikely—only a 5% chance for non-twins, 13% for fraternal twins, and 35% for identical twins). Or they may be frustrated and angry when the child with T1D is prioritized over them. They may even feel guilty that their sibling’s life is so different from theirs.
No matter what your child is feeling, you want them to be comfortable coming to you with openness and honesty. When your child needs to speak frankly and without fear of judgment, give them a codeword or a signal to tell you that they need a safe space to vent. It could be something like “can we go for a drive?” Or you could place an item like a ball or a stuffed animal prominently in your living room. If your child comes to you holding it, it means that they want to open a conversation where they can tell you earnestly how they are feeling. This practice allows everyone to separate meaningful, intentional talks from the day-to-day dialog that can be inadvertently dismissive. It also takes some pressure off of your children to figure out when the exact “right time” for a talk is. You can schedule a talk for a more convenient time, if needed, but that way your child can alert you that there is something they need to discuss with you.
Encourage Your Children to Explore Their Own Passions
Ultimately, kids want to be kids. Your children want the liberty to pursue sports, arts, or other activities that excite them. Be sure to foster their excitement! The best way to avoid division between your child with T1D and your other children is to allow them to chase their passions without feeling restrained by a condition.
Show up to your children’s games, matches, performances, recitals, etc. Make them feel valued and loved. Type 1 diabetes has a big presence, but it doesn’t need to create space between the people in your family.