The Struggles of Parenting A Type 1 Teenager

Beth McNamara Health Guide
  • With my son just one month short of turning fourteen, I feel like I now have entered a phase of on-going battles. Our relationship is solid enough, yet it is not filled with tranquility but instead is prone to raging storms followed by short interludes of calm. My husband and I sense that we are just beginning to make our way down the long road of teenagedom, and this road is starting to look very long indeed.

    I suppose much of this tension is about the changing of the guard, and our child now becoming an adult and making more decisions that he is accountable for. The problem is: the decisions he makes aren't the ones we'd make. Like sleeping half the day away after staying up well into the night to watch three movies from the Saw series ... or opting to start a major science project at 10 pm on the night before it's due ... or determining that skipping an after school tutoring lesson is okay as long as you get to hang out with your friends at the library instead. 

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    These decisions and their ramifications can be addressed and may result in some type of carrot and stick approach, like losing privileges. Where my irritation turns to worried fear is when I don't feel that my son's making smart choices when it comes to managing his diabetes. Let's face it, a "D" in Algebra is a lot easier to stomach than a high A1C. You can rectify a poor math grade; it's impossible to undue the damage done by high BG levels.

    Although I have really come to appreciate my son as he becomes an adult (I love the chance to discuss with him, on an even playing field, his opinions and thoughts on everything from politics to movies),  there are days -- at times on end -- when I feel at such odds with him that I am pushed to the brink of exhausted frustration. His Type 1 diagnosis has only exacerbated these feelings. A very recent incident almost drove me to pull half my head of hair out: he'd spent two weeks testing erratically and not recording his BG levels and dosage although he told me that he had. My bad: I didn't double check. His bad: Not telling me the truth because he was burnt out on testing and didn't want to keep the logs.

    It was at that point that I recalled some sage words I heard from a conference speaker: "The best thing about the teenage years are that they end." This speaker was Dr. Jill Weissberg-Benchell, lead psychologist specializing in teenagers with diabetes at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who presented at the July 09 Children With Diabetes conference.

    Using these words as a guide, I tried to consider how I could better handle the situation going forward and to better understand what may be driving my teenager. As with most parents, we've given our son more responsibility and hence more accountability for a variety of things as he's gotten older. For instance, we tell him to go do his homework and expect it to be done, instead of sitting down with him and walking through every item of work that needs to be done, as we do with our second-grader. We've taken a similar approach with his diabetes. But the more hands off we are, the less control we have. And, like many other Type 1 teenagers, as he takes on more responsibility for his condition, he often doesn't use the same amount or type of attention that we would like. Our natural reaction is that we believe that our teen doesn't care.

  • But in reality, he does care's just not abut the same things we do at the same time. Hence, the disconnect.

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    I admit that I've used fear in hopes to make my son care more about what I think he should care about. But using fear of the long-term consequences of poor management is not a great motivator for a teen. Let's face it -- no one no matter what age is motivated to live a short life.  But teenagers have a tough time thinking past tomorrow - so they cannot even conceive of life at fifty. Just ask any one of them and I bet most will have this answer: "Fifty," they'd screech, "OMG, that is old!"

    Rather, teenagers with diabetes are driven to control their condition for reasons that are very real to them here and now, most specifically not suffering from a high or low BG. Having very tight control over their diabetes can result in a severe low blood glucose. No one, particularly a teenager, wants to endure the loss of control and subsequent humiliation of going too low.

    It's hard for we as parents to remember that even though they have diabetes, they are still kids. And kids, well, will be kids. Very, very few teenagers want to tightly manage or be responsible for controlling much of anything. Ever.


    Of couse, as I'm banging my head against the wall, I remember that there are so many other factors that drive a BG number, like stress and just plain growing.

    With that said, is being a parent of a teenager exhausting? Absolutely.

    Frustrating? You bet.

    Rewarding? Nothing could be more true ... just give me the strength to endure exhausting frustration so that I may reap my rewards.

Published On: November 05, 2009