Tips for Supporting a Sibling Who Has Diabetes

(050110 Boston, MA ) 4 1/2 yr. old Eric Drinan, a patient at the Joslin Diabetes Center checks the heartbeat of his teddy at the annual Teddy Bear Clinic.Saturday, May 01, 2010. Staff photo by Arthur Pollock/saved in photo/Sunday

Diabetes is a disease that doesn’t just affect one person, it affects the entire family as well. Parents are likely to dedicate a lot of their time to a child’s diabetes care, but siblings without diabetes are also impacted. Brothers or sisters may watch their sibling struggle with managing diabetes and want to help, but they may not know exactly how to do so. Debbie Butler, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., C.D.E. and Associate Director of the Pediatric Programs at Joslin Diabetes Center, provides some useful tips for both children and parents on how siblings can show their support for a brother or sister with diabetes.

For Brothers and Sisters

Communication and patience are two ways to encourage a sibling with diabetes. Particularly in the first year of being diagnosed with diabetes, children may struggle with adjusting to a new lifestyle. It’s important for siblings to take time to learn what diabetes is, and how their brother or sister will manage it. Fortunately, even young children can learn in very basic terms why their sibling needs to check his or her blood sugar and take insulin to keep their body healthy.

“Sometimes it may be helpful to have a doll or stuffed animal in the house too that has diabetes that the sibling can play with,” says Debbie. There is now even a diabetes kit for American Girl dolls that can be used to explain diabetes and help siblings relate.

Another way that siblings can get involved in a brother or sister’s diabetes care is by learning what high or low blood glucose symptoms are, and then alerting an adult in charge if they see any of these symptoms. Siblings can also help with other daily tasks. “Younger siblings can help a parent by grabbing the meter when it’s time to check or a juice box to treat a low blood glucose,” recommends Debbie. This way the siblings can feel like a participant and as though they achieved something. If a sibling is older, they can learn how to check a brother or sister’s blood sugar and administer insulin.

For Parents

Parents can set an example of how to assist or comfort a brother or sister with diabetes.  For activities where a child with diabetes might feel left out, such as at a birthday party or on Halloween, Debbie advocates for parents keeping the same rules and traditions for their children with and without diabetes. For example, if the parents offer to buy back Halloween candy, they should buy it back from the other siblings without diabetes as well. Or if the child with diabetes can only have one piece of candy after their dinner, then that should be the standard for all members of the family.

A parent should be aware of their other children’s feelings. “Most children get jealous when they think that their parents are giving their sibling extra attention,” comments Debbie. “This definitely happens in the first year that a child is diagnosed with diabetes and every time the child with diabetes needs to check a blood sugar, take insulin, check their CGM, etc.” Debbie suggests that parents try to acknowledge those feelings and saying something simple like “That must be so hard,” instead of telling the sibling not to feel that way.

Parents might also consider setting aside special time for siblings who feel left out. This may sound simple, but is not always easy. One idea to try may be spending 30 minutes a week together or doing one special activity alone with each parent every month. This schedule can be followed through for every child in the house, and makes all siblings feel included in their parents’ attention and care.

For children with diabetes, learning to manage the disease is both challenging and demanding. It is difficult to return to normalcy in the beginning, and a child may be confused and frustrated. But support from their family will go a long way for children with diabetes. Whether siblings assist with simple diabetes care tasks or are just emotionally supportive, their encouragement will help in both the physical and mental care of a child with diabetes.

For more information on how to help siblings understand a brother or sister’s diabetes, visit our Child Life Services page. For questions related to your child’s diabetes or to make an appointment, contact our Pediatric Clinic at 617-732-2603.

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