Adolescents and diabetes mellitus

Teen checking blood sugarWhat is diabetes mellitus?

Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder, a problem with how the body uses food. It is characterized by a failure to secrete enough insulin, or the inability to use insulin. Because insulin is needed by the body to convert glucose into energy, these failures result in excessively high levels of glucose in the blood and not enough energy. Diabetes may be a result of other conditions, such as genetic syndromes, chemicals, drugs, malnutrition, infections, viruses or other illnesses.

The three main types of diabetes – Type I, Type II and gestational (during pregnancy only) – are all defined as metabolic disorders that affect the way the body metabolizes, or uses, digested food to make glucose. Glucose is the main source of fuel for the body.

What is pre-diabetes?

In pre-diabetes, blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be defined as diabetes. However, many people with pre-diabetes go on to develop Type II diabetes within 10 years. Pre-diabetes also increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. With modest weight loss and moderate physical activity, people with pre-diabetes can delay or prevent development of Type II diabetes.

Teens and diabetes

According to the American Diabetes Association and the National Diabetes Education Program, about 215,000 people younger than 20 have diabetes. Most of them have Type I diabetes. However, Type II diabetes, a disease that used to be seen primarily in adults ages 45 and older, has become more common in younger people. This is mainly due to increasing rates of obesity in children and teens.

“Although the teenage years can be a challenge for any child as he or she goes through physical and emotional changes, it can be especially trying for adolescents with diabetes,” says Mauricio Flores, MD, Pediatric Endocrinologist at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. “Adolescents inherently want to fit in. Being different in any way from his or her peers can be emotionally stressful, especially for the teenager.”

The teen who previously complied very well with his or her diabetes management plan may now become rebellious and refuse to comply. A teen may also experience denial of the disease, or display increasingly aggressive behavior in reaction to the stress of managing diabetes, during a time in life that is challenging enough already.

One aspect of diabetes management, blood sugar control, is especially hard during adolescence. Researchers believe the growth hormone produced during adolescence to stimulate bone and muscle growth may also act as an anti-insulin agent. Blood sugar levels become harder to control, resulting in levels that swing from too low to too high. This lack of control over blood sugar levels can be very frustrating for your teenager.

Helping your teenager cope

Open communication between you and your teenager with diabetes is important during these years. You should recognize that your teenager wants to be treated as an adult, even if that means letting him or her take charge of his or her own diabetes management plan. Parents should also recognize that teenagers need the following:

  • Spontaneity. Adolescence is a time of spontaneity, such as stopping for pizza after school. However, teenagers with diabetes also need to realize that managing their diabetes successfully will give them the flexibility they desire.
  • Control. Teenagers want to be in charge of their own lives and create their own identities. To achieve this control, they will test limits. However, teenagers with diabetes can learn that exerting control over their diabetes means learning to gain control over other parts of life.