When diabetes decides to intrude:
A parents’ dilemma.
‘I can't believe what's happening to my child! How is it even possible that my child has got diabetes? S/he is still too little to endure and to understand what's happening! How are we going to deal with all this?’
These are but a few examples of parents’ primary reactions to the news that their child was diagnosed with type1 diabetes. It is shocking and it throws anyone, especially parents, off track. No one expects that it would happen to them. Paradoxically, as shocking as it seems, for those families with a family history of diabetes, the possibility of such circumstances would have been on their mind for quite a while. Diabetes is an inherited condition, therefore the chances that it passes from one generation to another, is a possibility. Statistics show that on the Maltese islands, around 25 individuals under the age of 16 are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes yearly (Torpiano, 2014).
It is only natural that parents have dreams, hopes, and expectations for their child, even before he or she is born. Upon diagnosis, this ideal picture of the child becomes temporarily shattered. The grief of the perfect child occurs and the parental instinct of protection towards the child kicks in. ‘Can my child still keep doing sports, dancing...? How is s/he going to be viewed by his friends? Will s/he be bullied because of this condition? Will s/he stick out in a crowd and be seen as different? How is our daily life going to be affected and changed?’
Through medical professional intervention, such as that of specialised doctors, nurses, and dieticians, parents will soon realise, that their child is not as limited as they would have initially imagined. However, such a drastic change in the family, brings with it some challenges. Every part of the system that the child is part of; the parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends, is affected in a ripple effect.
At first, it is very common that parents find themselves lost, not sure how to make sense of such news and how they are going to cope with diabetes itself. It's as if diabetes has decided to intrude into their family life and made itself to stay, without any consent. Most of the questions and millions of worries and thoughts that parents go through are at times left unanswered. Most of the questions are related to situations that need to be tackled on a day to day basis, along the child’s life.
However, it is noticed that some couples and families, seem to be more resilient than others. This is mostly seen when emotional and practical support is exhibited in the couple’s relationship and also when there is support from the immediate family. Nonetheless, such news affects every individual and couple differently. Diabetes is not just a medical condition. It infiltrates the whole family’s lifestyle for life. It challenges the couple's relationship, believes and expectations both as a couple and as parents. At times, as much as the couple seems to be surrounded by family and have support, they still feel that they are either not being understood enough by others or that they do not understand each other enough. They feel the need to talk, vent or reflect about the different views and perspectives that shook so drastically their family life to a professional. It would be recommended that from an early stage of acquiring the news, couples that feel at a loss consider the professional help of a family psychotherapist. The process would be that of helping and supporting the couple cope with the news, learn to relate with diabetes itself, the child, themselves as a couple and the relationships around them.
Parents who have a child with diabetes are highly overwhelmed with the responsibility that was placed upon them unexpectedly. In therapy, parents bring with them a lot of fears, mostly that of losing their child out of lowering their guards or just a freak accident. In this context, this is very understandable. During the child’s early years and adolescence period, the parents tend to be the primary vigilantes of the child's diet. They guide them in controlling their blood sugar levels, day and night. Shifting to adolescence, it is very common for both the parents and the young teen to be faced with challenging times. However, young adults learn to adapt, be more involved in the process and be more independent. The management of diabetes becomes more bearable when one realizes that one’s reaction to the daily pricking and injecting is only human. However the benefit of being responsible in going through such a daily process will have an effect on the person’s own survival and enjoyment of a good quality of life.
It is not an easy process when a chronic illness hits home. Let us not forget that the child that was diagnosed with diabetes is still a child who needs to play, to be mischievous, and shown a lot of love and understanding, like any other child. Irrespective of having diabetes or not, a teen would still be going through all the development processes of growth and that of differentiating ones identity from others. Also, parents who care for a child with diabetes would still need to feel the love and connection as a couple.
So yes, the lives of these families seem to turn around numbers coming up and down and the doses of insulin to be taken. But every parent in such circumstances needs to realise that in the midst of all the medical procedures, our relationship with ourselves, our partner, the child who has got diabetes, his or her siblings and others are also very important.
Experience has taught me that at the end of the day the numbers are a reflection of your relationships and your relationships are a reflection of your numbers- take good care of both of them!
Maria Grech Debono
M. Sys. Psy, P.G. Dip. Sys. Psy, B. Psy. (Hons.)