By: Joe Solowiejczyk
Father’s Day is a good time to reflect upon the gift fathers give to their children and families when they assume an active role in the management of diabetes. Fathers play a pivotal role in helping the child and family cope effectively with the diagnosis and daily challenge of living with diabetes.
You may be surprised to know that many physicians and nurses have never met their patients’ fathers. A father’s involvement makes a positive difference in the way his child’s diabetes is handled. How involved a father is can be intricately linked to what child’s a HbA1c will be a year down the road. The father’s involvement, whether still married or divorced, is crucial to the emotional-repair process that needs to happen if life is to go on in a positive way.
What Can a Dad Do?
Does this mean that a father’s role is primary to the exclusion of mothers, siblings and other adult family members? Or that those children in single parent or same-sex families won’t be able to deal successfully with living with diabetes? No, of course not!
We’re talking about fathers and the impact their roles have on a child with diabetes. Through both my clinical and personal experience with diabetes, I know what is absolutely necessary for a diabetic child to do well in living with this disease. First and foremost there must be a lot of love, sensitivity, compassion and support around him or her. A father’s involvement is just as important to the mother and rest of the family as it is to the child with diabetes.
The bottom line is that diabetes, like most chronic illnesses, is a family disease. Once it hits, everyone is affected in some way. The more a father knows, the more available he can be to his child and family. And the more available he is, the more he will learn about his family.
Both Mom and Dad Should Be Equally Knowledgeable
It’s crucial that both parents are equally knowledgeable in how to manage diabetes on a daily basis. How the mother and father decide to divvy up the work (i.e., mom does the shots and breakfast during the week; dad on weekends) is a detail that flows from the already established decision that both are going to be involved.
Dads Should Attend All Educational Sessions
The first step is for the father to plan to attend all the educational sessions in the hospital when the child is first diagnosed. Then, after going home, go to some of the outpatient clinic visits as well. This sends a strong message to everyone in the family that the father is there.
Share in Helping Everyone Come to Terms
Being actively involved means sharing in helping everyone come to terms with the fear, anger, denial and confusion that comes up when a child is diagnosed. The more a father knows, the more he and the mother can work together as a team, especially if and when behavioral issues like not testing, committing dietary indiscretions or skipping shots begin to surface.
The siblings and mother cannot do it alone. They need the father to be there.
Provide a Healthy Emotional Environment
What’s difficult about living with diabetes is that there is so much emphasis on getting the numbers right and keeping everything in balance as far as food and exercise are concerned. Since optimal metabolic control is the best insurance against complications, we sometimes tend to overlook the underlying emotional environment. If the father is scared and feeling unsettled all the time, like there’s no firm ground upon which to take the next step, he cannot perform optimally.
Many families that are having a difficult time with emotions and family dynamics say that it’s like being arrested in time and space-still stuck in the emergency room at the time when the physician is telling them for the first time that their child has diabetes.
The child’s HbA1c is as much a reflection of the home emotional environment as it is about how he or she is medically managed. It is as much about how comfortable the father and his mother are around issues of emotional intimacy as it is about getting the right blood sugar numbers. If support and respect are there, it will be seen in the child’s numbers.
The More You Know, the More You Can Be Available to Your Child and Family
Even if a father doesn’t have any quick solutions to relieve the pain, if he is on board it will help ease the tension surrounding the question “How are we going to put our lives back together again?” A father’s capacity to cry, be there for his family, ask for help from family and friends and be there for his diabetic child are critical to walking through this challenge with dignity and courage.
Since managing this disease involves so much juggling, the more the father does, the more he sends home the message that he really cares and the better his child will do, both emotionally and medically.
If fathers really want to get a great Father’s Day gift this year, their thoughts should turn to the idea that it is in giving that we truly receive. Giving your partner the support he or she needs is a gift you give to your child. Experiencing the pleasure of working as a team with your spouse and family, knowing that your diabetic child is under good medical control, and watching him or her embrace life with a sense of excitement, joy and adventure is the gift you give to yourself on this day and every day.
For those who are already there, enjoy it. You know how good it is. For those about to make the change, you’ll be happy you did.
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Joe Solowiejczyk has had type 1 diabetes for 41 years. He is a consultant at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, and runs a training/consulting service called InBalance Healthcare. He has been working as a diabetes nurse educator and family therapist for 26 years.