Dealing with sibling rivalry when raising a child with type 1 diabetes

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Tim Brand

Raising children brings so much joy, but it also comes with its fair share of responsibilities. Raising a child with type 1 diabetes (T1D) is no different!

You learned the basics of diabetes management in the hospital following your child's diagnosis, but the doctors probably didn't give too many tips about dealing with sibling rivalry. This situation often arises when a child's siblings (who don't have T1D) feel as though they aren't receiving an equal amount of the parents' attention due to their sibling's condition.

Dealing with sibling rivalry when raising a child with type 1 diabetes can be challenging, but with patience, a good amount of planning and a bit of time, things can get better. Here's some helpful advice for managing sibling relationships if one of your children has T1D.

Help all your children understand T1D and its needs

The first year after your child's diagnosis is filled with victories and struggles. Along with the newfound stress you are under to manage your child's condition, much of your time and energy is likely devoted to them. This makes it easy for the other children to feel as though they're getting less attention or being ignored.

Your child with T1D tends to require more attention simply because of their diabetes management needs. They may also need more emotional support, related to "being different" from other kids their age. Naturally, this can cause children without T1D to feel left out.

If your children without T1D are older than the child with the condition, take time to listen to their feelings and validate their thoughts. Perhaps you can enlist them to help with the management of your other child's type 1 diabetes! For instance, they can act as another set of eyes and ears that can alert you to potential blood sugar issues.

If the children without T1D are younger, explain that their older sibling has an invisible health condition and therefore needs support from the whole family. Note that even though their sibling with T1D doesn't "look sick," they need to pay attention to their blood sugars and regularly deal with fingersticks and insulin injections.

Make everyone feel heard and respected

Ultimately, the key to getting everyone on the same page is communication. Tailor your talking points based on the children's age and levels of understanding. Make a point to listen to each child and help them feel heard.

Don't worry about crafting the perfect response — just be there for them and offer an open ear without judgment. Once they've said their piece, respond with something affirming like, "Thank you for sharing. I love you! Now let's work on this together."

Another way to make the playing field level for all family members is to design routines (and meal plans) so that everyone adheres to the same healthy principles whether they have T1D or not. Both children and adults with T1D can eat many of the same things as those without diabetes, but there are some items that should be avoided.

To resist temptation and avoid any feelings of jealously or rivalry, plan meals where everyone can eat everything. Try to follow a single ingredient diet that reduces bad carbohydrates, avoids high carbohydrate counts, eliminates overly processed foods and has a lower glycemic index.

Every child with T1D will experience days of difficult blood sugars at some point. If they need a fruit snack as a pick-me-up, let all of your kids enjoy a similar treat so no one feels left out. Additionally, having the entire family eat a low-carb dinner can help your child with T1D manage their condition without feeling singled out. Both situations are win-win, as the other siblings can enjoy the same snacks and learn the benefits of eating healthy!

Level the playing field

You probably devote a great deal of attention to your child with T1D — for obvious reasons — so try to also find special time for your other children. Make a point to counterbalance diabetes care with other activities.

The time you carve out can be spent on a walk outdoors, which is great for your mental and physical health. It's a good chance to connect on a personal level as well as observe nature and your surroundings. A trip to the ice cream shop is another viable idea, allowing your children without T1D the time and space to open up (and indulge). Other activities that can address a perceived lack of attention include bike rides, visiting museums, playing games or taking an overnight camping trip.

Heading to a birthday party? To level the playing field, consider calling ahead and giving a brief explanation of your child's diabetes to the host parents. You don't want to show up and have your child be served a plate of vegetables, so try to find out the type of cake, ice cream or other treats that will be served and figure out the carbs ahead of time. Pre-bolusing is an excellent approach and helps with blood sugar spikes and it can keep your child's continuous glucose monitor (CGM) from sounding the alarm and drawing attention to them.

Resolve conflicts as they arise

Of course, no matter how well-behaved and conscientious your children are, they're likely to butt heads every now and then, regardless of the T1D diagnosis. In those situations, it helps to address issues head-on and remind everyone they're on the same team. Here are a few other tips for dealing with sibling conflict:

  • Let them discuss their feelings in an open and non-judgmental context. Sibling rivalry does not have to mean daily fights! Your children all have different temperaments, and talking things through can help them feel understood.
  • Don't ever excuse bad behavior (whether it be from your child with T1D or their siblings).
  • Young children might not be able to effectively articulate their feelings. If possible, let them have their own play area and toys. As they grow, they'll be more open to cooperating and communicating.
  • If you feel you need additional guidance and support, social workers are a great option. Contacts are available at the pediatric endocrinology office.

Dealing with sibling rivalry when raising a child with type 1 diabetes is a bridge that many parents will cross — having a plan to handle it will help set you up for success. Regardless of any diabetes diagnosis, it's normal for children to compete for parents' attention. Taking a few simple steps can help alleviate any issues.

Curious to learn how an insulin pump can help a child with type 1 diabetes manage their condition on a daily basis? Visit the Edgepark website for more information and to browse available equipment and supplies.

Tim Brand

Tim and his wife raise four children, and two have type 1 diabetes. Each diagnosed at age three, in 2009 and 2011, then Tim started writing about the girls and their diabetes in 2011 on his blog. Social Media Links: https://www.facebook.com/bleeddingfinger
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Diabetes Management Tip