How I Explain My Type 1 Diabetes to My Kidsby Ginger Vieira Health Writer & Patient Advocate
I’ve never tried to hide my Type 1 diabetes from anyone. I’ve always believed that the more you hide your chronic illness and the more you act as if it’s something to be embarrassed by or ashamed of, the more others will see it that way too.
On the contrary, the more you wear it proudly on your sleeve and simply acknowledge it in the open as something you bravely face each day, the more others will see it as something to be proud of.
No, I’m not proud of having Type 1 diabetes, but I am proud of myself for facing it every day, as I feel anyone who manages a chronic illness day in and day out should be.
When it comes to my children, you can bet I don’t hide a second of my diabetes from them either, for all the same reasons.
In the beginning
“No!” my nearly two-year-old, Lucy, said when she was first old enough to sort of understand what she was seeing as I pushed an insulin syringe into the flesh on my belly.
It amazed me that her young little brain knew that what she was seeing ought to be painful.
“This is my medicine,” I said.
Anytime my toddler found me taking an injection or pricking my finger, I said, “Mama’s taking her medicine.”
“Medicine?” Lucy echoed back.
“Yes, this medicine helps mama stay healthy.”
A year later
Now Lucy is almost three. She understands pain and sharp things, blood, bruises, cuts, and scabs. She gets it. She knows what “ouch” really means.
Now, when she watches me take an insulin injection, she says, “Mama, that hurt? That hurt?”
“A little bit,” I say, honestly. “But not for long. This is my medicine.”
Why hide it? Why pretend it doesn’t hurt? Aside from the obvious fact that she has endured and will continue to endure vaccine injections, I also want her to see, first-hand, that just because something hurts doesn’t mean you have to crumble in fear.
In other words, I want to show her through my own actions what “bravery” means.
Mama has a disease. (Actually, I have three diseases.) Hiding it from my child just allows her to grow up ignorant of the fact that life will absolutely challenge each and every one of us.
Someday, she will face a tremendous challenge too and I will prepare her for that as best I can by simply demonstrating through my own actions that one of your choices is to stand up tall and move forward through those challenges.
When they’re older
As my children grow older, having a real-life understanding of Type 1 diabetes won't just prepare them to face their own challenges, it will teach them compassion and understanding for others.
You don’t have to have a disease to know how to support a friend who has a disease.
By witnessing how I manage my diabetes, celiac disease, and fibromyalgia, my children will inevitably learn and know how to gently support a high school best friend if they’re diagnosed with depression, for example.
They’ll know how to support a boyfriend whose mother may be dying of breast cancer. They’ll know how to support a college roommate who may have Crohn’s disease. They’ll easily understand why their chemistry professor is late for class when they see a pack of glucose tabs in his hand and that sweaty complexion a hypoglycemic episode leaves a person with diabetes with as they recover.
Some day they might even have to stand up for a classmate who is being teased or bullied because of a disability or disease. They will understand that that disability or disease doesn’t mean their classmate is weak or stupid or freaky. And their actions have the potential to show others that their classmate is worthy of respect and friendship, too.
As my children grow older, learning about my chronic illnesses has the potential to help them grow into stronger, kinder, braver, smarter, and more compassionate human beings.
Hiding your challenges from your children means hiding an opportunity to teach them about the real world and real life and everything that comes with it. Hiding your challenges means leading them to believe those things deserve to be hidden and worthy of shame and fear.
My children will learn just the opposite: a chronic illness is incredibly challenging, and facing it every day makes me a stronger mother and a stronger person, not a weaker one. My children won’t pity me as they grow older and gain a deeper understanding of the chronic illnesses I face each day.
Instead, they will simply be proud of me, and they will carry that same pride, persistence, and bravery into their own lives when life gets hard.