Helping Kids Understand Diabetes

The proper method of explaining diabetes to children depends on the age of the child who has diabetes. A very young child may do best with a simple instruction to ask an adult before eating anything.

An older child may want to learn the rules of what to eat or not eat for themselves. And a still older child may want to understand what diabetes is and why that means they can’t eat the same things their friends can eat.

It’s not their fault

No matter what the age of the child, the first and most important step in helping kids understand diabetes is to let them know that they are not being punished in some way for being bad or having done something wrong. Since diabetes often runs in families, it is helpful if there is a beloved family member who can be used as an example. Telling a child they have the same condition as someone else they know and love reassures them.

Even if there is no one in the family whom they know who has diabetes, you can relate it to something similar that they know, such as a classmate who has to be careful not to eat peanuts, or someone who needs to carry an EpiPen at all times in case they are stung by a bee. None of these things are the fault of the affected child. Equally importantly, they are all conditions that will last for life.

Don’t call it a disease

Children tend to think of diseases as things that you have for a short period of time, and then you’re well again. If you call diabetes a disease, or say they’re sick with diabetes, they will have the expectation that if they do the right things, and obey all the rules you give them, at some point they will be well again.

Rather than get their hopes up, and later have them feel betrayed, be sure you state clearly from the beginning that they have a condition, and they will always have that condition. If the child is old enough to understand, you can even tell them how they always had diabetes, ever since they were a baby, but that it took a while for the doctors to be able to diagnose it.

Make the rules empowering

The other important part of explaining diabetes to children is to present the rules dealing with diabetes as empowering, rather than restrictive. Instead of telling them which of their favorite foods they can no longer eat, help them to view their eating habits as a way for them to control their health. Let older children schedule when they receive their insulin shots.

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