From the moment we receive the diagnosis that we have a child with Type 1 Diabetes, the whirlwind of the disease and its management monopolizes us, often pushing our other children onto the peripheral. Even as that initial chaos subsides, it seems as if the regimented schedules and monitoring of diabetes supplants the needs, interests and scheduling of their non-diabetic siblings.
As parents, we try not to let this happen, yet it's difficult with the need to be hyper-focused on the day-to-day management of Type 1: What did you eat? How much? When? Have you tested your blood? What was the reading? Have you exercised? When? What did you do? For how long?
I have three sons, with my oldest being a Type 1 Diabetic. I bombard him several times daily with the above litany of questions, and my other two sons often jump in during my inquisition to tell me what they've eaten, how many grams of carbohydrates they ate, how much they exercised, and so on. Their responses often exasperate me and I hush them, focusing only on my diabetic son's answers.
Yet it wasn't until my middle son began saying that he felt that he was displaying symptoms of diabetes, like drinking a lot, that I got the wake up call. I tried to stop worrying, which is always easier said than done, and started to consider how diabetes was affecting his two siblings emotionally.
Frankly, there's not a whole lot out there on how siblings with diabetic brothers or sisters react or handle the condition. Sure, I read many online articles that told me that if my children were identical twins and one was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, then the other twin had a 50% likelihood of becoming a diabetic. This was scientifically accurate, but to me at this point in time, not much more useful than tossing a coin. What I really wanted to know was how my other kids will react to their brothers' diabetes and what the pitfalls might be.
In fact, a sibling dealing with another sibling with diabetes have some of the same issues as those kids with a brother or sister with a disability or another chronic disease. When I realized that, I then was able to find some information on what to expect from my other two children and their reactions to diabetes, and then how we could manage these reactions.
How do siblings really feel?
Guilty: Just like their parents, siblings of kids with Type 1 Diabetes often feel guilty. Guilty that something they did caused the condition, or guilty that they do not have it.
Fear: Brother and sisters are saddled with many fears, ranging from the fear that they, too, may get diabetes to the fear that their sibling may go back into the hospital.
Resentment/jealousy: A resounding theme in sibling relationships is the statement "It's not fair!" These feelings of unfairness and resentment are true of siblings dealing with Type 1. It can be tough for siblings to deal with their diabetic sibling receiving the constant attention when they themselves are getting very little, even if you're focusing on giving your diabetic child an insulin injection or counting carbohydrates, your other kids are missing the attention you might otherwise be giving them.
Needy/craving attention: As was discussed, a brother or sister may resent the extra time and attention their diabetic sibling receives. In order to reclaim some of this attention, a non-diabetic sibling may complain of real physical ailments, including headaches, nausea, or dizziness. Or, the non-diabetic child may complain of symptoms associated with Type 1: excessive thirst, the need to go the bathroom, or hunger.These complaints may be manifesting themselves as a way to receive attention, or may be a way that the child can sympathize with his or her sibling.
What can you do?
Everyone has their own strategies to deal with their children in different situations, whether in crisis or not. Here are a few suggestions to work into your current strategies as you deal with Type 1 and its impacts on all of your children:
Talk to your other children. Ask them how they really feel. Are they angry? Why? Encourage them to be as honest as possible about their feelings then tell them that much of what they feel is normal.
Too, try not to judge or be critical of the feelings that the child has towards their sibling's diabetes. If the children don't feel that they can share openly and honestly with you, then they won't and that potentially lead to more trouble ahead. I nearly bit my tongue in two when my youngest son confided in me that he was angry because we couldn't go to Dairy Queen as often as we did before his brother's diagnosis. My first reaction was to roar: "Your brother is sticking himself with needles to stay alive and you're mad about not getting a Blizzard every week?" Then again, he only was displaying the often typical feelings of resentment.
Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut. This once.
Keep your schedule and routines as normal as possible. With diabetes, ‘normal' can be an oxymoron. Few conditions are as regimented and scheduled as Type 1 Diabetes. One missed meal or snack can mean a certain low, and if it's a very low low, can mean a call to 911.
Keeping that caveat in mind, try to keep schedules as close to what everyone would like it to be, but be as flexible as possible. Ensure that all family members understand this need to be flexible. If you need to stop during a Little League baseball game and have a snack, it's okay. Really.
Schedule time just for each child and that child alone. Set a date, and stick to it. Take the child to dinner, to a movie, out for his or her favorite activity. Make it super special - pick the child up early from school.
Get involved in a local diabetes group, if there is one in your area. And if there is not, consider starting one (a tall order for your already busy schedule!), or rather check with your CDE (certified diabetes educator) or diabetes management team for recommendations of a group in your area.
Consider attending to the Children With Diabetes' Friends for Life Conference, coming up in July at Walt Disney World. Programming at the conference includes breakouts for siblings, and can help them feel that they are not alone.
Seek the input of a counselor or therapist. If you feel that your children's behavior requires additional help, then consider either seeing a family therapist or an individual counselor. Your child simply may need to work through emotions ranging from guilt to anger. Start with your family doctor or diabetes management team for suggestions.
Creating a balance of time and priorities across all members of your family is far from easy and will never be, particularly with integrating diabetes as a priority. Some days will be easier than others. Yet try to step back from a myopic focus on the diabetes management and take a higher level look at all your family members involved.
Your kids will thank you, diabetic or not.