Teenagers and Diabetes

Being a teenager is hard enough, but being a teenager with diabetes can be brutal (and being the parent of a teenager with diabetes can turn you into a basket case). Last month, I wrote about the challenges of being newly diagnosed.  This month, let’s talk about handling diabetes during the teenage years.

Even if a child has been dealing with diabetes for years, he faces new challenges and temptations as he gains the independence of a teenager. It is easy to get off track and start rebelling against diabetes and the daily hassles it entails. Diabetes requires good self-management, and while Mom and Dad could help (or enforce) that management in the preteen years, a teenager spends much more time on her own, away from home overnight, and even driving a car.  It is now up to the teenager to take responsibility for managing diabetes, on top of all the other tasks of a teenager: earning good grades, choosing proper friends, practicing sports or arts, making decisions about personal appearance, and maybe even holding down a part-time job.

The teenage years can hit a teenager with the first real blow of failure and disappointment.  Suddenly, other kids are better athletes, more popular, or better looking.  Rejection can land in the lap of a teenager very fast, and diabetes can make it even worse.  When I was 13 years old, basketball was my sport.  I made my high school freshman team and felt pretty good about my prospects for the coming years.  I knew that several of my freshman classmates were better than I, but I was still confident that I could keep making the team.  When I was cut from the jayvee team in my sophomore year, it was a huge blow to my self-confidence. I swallowed it and tried out for the varsity team my junior year, but I got cut again, another devastating disappointment.  In my senior year, I had to decide whether or not to try out  for a final time and risk the humiliation of failure again.  I practiced hard all summer, summoned the nerve, and showed up at tryouts.  Yes, I was scared to death of failure again, and I remember being teased and ridiculed a bit, but I made the team.  I had never been so proud, and my team eventually made it to the high school state championship. I did not get to start or play that much, and several of my more talented team members actually quit over the lack of playing time. But there was no way I was going to quit after all those years of failure and rejection while just trying to make the team.

Teenage rejection and failure was a turning point in my life, and helped me deal with the blow of being diagnosed with diabetes about six years later, when I was 24 years old.  It became my goal to prove that I was stronger than diabetes, and it motivated me to attempt the Ironman triathlon. Eventually, I qualified for Team USA and raced for the U.S. national team for three years at the Long Distance Triathlon World Championships.  Diabetes now serves as the foundation for my Finish Line Vision motivational speaking program, which focuses on overcoming obstacles, setting goals, and earning your finish line.

Diabetes camps are a great way for teenagers to realize that diabetes does not have to limit them.  Role models are a great asset as well, athletes, entertainers, actresses, and artists with diabetes who help a teenager gain confidence, peace of mind, and the conviction that “I can do that too.”  Diabetes actually makes teenagers smarter and more mature than others of their age because they understand their bodies and how diet affects them.  How many other teenagers have any idea (or care) how much sugar is in a coke or what high fructose corn syrup and pizza do to their bodies?  Diabetes can be an advantage, arming a teen with knowledge that those without diabetes do not have and a steely determination to succeed in spite of diabetes.  Along the way, a diabetic teenager will become a role model for others, even though he may never hear that from the other kids.

Hang in there, teenagers (and parents of teenagers)!  Diabetes does not control you.  Just keep going, and you will make it to your finish line.  You may not be the fastest, but you will be faster than those who quit, or never even started.

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