Diabetes rates are increasing rapidly in adolescents. It’s estimated that 283, 000 Americans under the age of 20 have been diagnosed with diabetes and the numbers are rising. Type 1 diabetes is more prevalent in young people than type 2 diabetes, but the rates of both types are on the rise.
Types of diabetes that affect young people
Although people can develop type 1 diabetes at any age, the average age of diagnosis is 13 years. A UK study estimated that 85% of all type 1 diagnoses happen in people 20 years and younger. Treatment usually includes lifelong use of insulin and glucose monitoring, a healthy diet, and exercise.
Although type 2 diabetes typically occurs in adults aged 45 and older, it’s becoming more common in younger people. Excess weight is one of the biggest contributors to diabetes in teens and increases their chance of health challenges throughout their life. Teens with type 2 diabetes may need medication or might often manage their condition by changing their diet, exercising more, and maintaining a moderate weight.
The symptoms of diabetes in children, teenagers, and adults are similar. Some symptoms are the same in both types of diabetes, but there are some differences to help tell them apart.
The symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children tend to develop rapidly over a few weeks. Type 2 diabetes symptoms may develop more gradually and are not even noticeable. It may take months or even years to get diagnosed, or it’s only picked up during a routine check-up.
Parents should be aware of the “4 Ts” in children:
Toilet: More frequent visits to the bathroom.
Thirsty: Drinking more fluids but feeling unable to quench their thirst.
Tired: They may be feeling more tired than usual, have blurry vision, and darkened areas of the skin.
Thinner: Unintended weight loss, even with increased hunger.
Researchers don’t fully understand why some children develop type 2 diabetes and others don’t, even if they have similar risk factors. However, these factors increase their risk:
Weight: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes in children, especially if they have a lot of fatty tissue around their waist.
Inactivity: The less active children are, the bigger their risk of type 2 diabetes.
Diet: Eating red and processed meat and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Family history: Children who have a parent or sibling with the disease have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Age and sex: Many children develop type 2 diabetes in their early teens. Adolescent girls are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than adolescent boys.
Gestational diabetes: Children born to mothers who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Low birth weight or preterm birth: Having a low birth weight, or babies born prematurely is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Early detection and treatment in children and teenagers can improve their health and wellness throughout life.
When your teen is diagnosed
The teen years can be a challenge for any child as they go through puberty. It can be even more challenging for teens with diabetes. Teens want to “fit in” and being different in any way from their peers can be stressful.
Teenagers who have recently been diagnosed with diabetes may struggle emotionally with their condition and worry about the reactions of others and be nervous about going to school.
As a parent, finding out that your teen has diabetes can be a scary and emotional time. The good news is that teens with diabetes can take part in most of the same activities as their peers but will need your help and guidance to do so safely.
If your child has been a diabetic from an early age and they used to follow their diabetes plan diligently, they could suddenly become rebellious, and even aggressive about their condition in their teen years. They may now be in denial about their diabetes and refuse to follow their treatment plan. For example, some teens will skip their insulin injections to lose weight.
Your child is also at an age where they develop their own identity, want to be more independent, and take control of their lives. Many parents worry that their teenager(s) won’t be responsible enough to manage their diabetes, which could make them unwell.
With guidance from their doctor and a good support system you can help your teen to manage their diet and medications in different situations, such as during parties or when exercising.
Tips for talking to your teen
Diabetes won’t stop your child from behaving like any other teenager, so choosing the right time to have a serious conversation with your child about their condition, is important. Here are some tips:
Make sure you have enough time available to have a conversation, and not when one of you is rushing off somewhere.
If you are cross with your teen, wait until you are calm so that you can talk to them rationally.
Don’t try and have a conversation with your child when they are in a mood.
Face-to-face conversations might be daunting for them, so consider talking to them when you are doing something together, like going for a walk or cooking a meal. Sometimes it can be easier for your teen to speak to you openly when they don’t have to look you in the eye.
Make sure you have enough information available to answer their questions.
Make sure you are the right person to talk to them about their diabetes. They might feel more comfortable talking to another family member.
Ask them to tell you how they are feeling about their diabetes.
Encourage them to join a support group to meet other teens with diabetes.
Praise any good behavior.
Helping your teen cope
To help your teen live a close to normal life, you need to provide them with information on how to manage their diabetes when taking part in certain activities and what to do if something goes wrong. They should always carry medication with them in case their blood sugar levels drop (hypoglycemia), or they experience a spike (hyperglycemia).
If they don’t have control over their blood sugar levels it can be incredibly stressful for your teen. Also, encourage them to carry some form of diabetes ID for their safety.
During the teen years, your child may develop their first relationship with someone. They should know that sex or vigorous kissing and dancing can cause their blood sugar levels to drop.
High blood glucose levels increase the likelihood of developing thrush, and they should seek treatment as soon as they have genital itching or a discharge.
Girls with diabetes can use birth control pills, and they should use some form of protection if they are having sex.
Teens may often start to experiment with alcohol and other substances. People with diabetes can still drink alcohol, but an excessive amount isn’t good for anyone’s health. Teach your child about the units of alcohol in different drinks. They should never drink on an empty stomach and have plenty of water or sugar-free drinks in between.
Alcohol increases the chances of a drop in their blood sugar levels, so encourage them to tell their friends about their diabetes and how to treat a hypoglycemic episode. It is possible for hypoglycemia to be mistaken for drunkenness, or even occur a few hours after drinking alcohol.
There is no such thing as a safe drug. Drugs can affect people and their diabetes differently, depending on the type, amount, and purity of the drug. Some drugs can suppress appetite while others cause hunger. Fasting or eating non-diabetic food can affect your teen’s blood sugar levels. Drugs can also trigger irresponsible behavior and your child could forget to take their insulin.