A diabetes diagnosis can feel crushing, especially when you aren’t expecting it. This is even more true when the diagnosis is for your child. But parents of children living with diabetes and doctors both have one clear message: the condition is manageable.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic health condition in which the body either doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use it as well as it should. Insulin, a naturally occurring hormone made in the pancreas, helps the body use sugar for energy. There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.
“It’s important to understand that each condition is distinct”
— Risa Wolf
Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune disease where the beta cells of the pancreas are attacked by a person’s own antibodies and can no longer produce insulin like they should.
Type 2 diabetes is generally described as a state of insulin resistance. This type of diabetes is most often seen in children who are overweight or obese, but there are other risk factors.
Gestational diabetes is typically a temporary condition that occurs while pregnant and usually goes away after the baby is born.
Risa Wolf, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric endocrinology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that the incidence and prevalence of type 2 has been increasing over the past two decades. Specifically, doctors are seeing more diagnoses among children, and during the pandemic.
According to the nonprofit American Diabetes Association (ADA), headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, DMV residents are feeling the effects of this increase more and more, as it is estimated that one in every three children born after 2000 in the U.S. will be directly affected by diabetes. The nonprofit helps to fund research for preventing, managing and curing the condition.
Wolf says that the ADA is a good place to start in terms of family support, as the organization has a tremendous amount of resources and the largest network of
diabetes camps nationwide.
Learning that your child has diabetes is never an easy process, nor is it always straightforward.
During a routine checkup in 2021, Ellicott City teen Hakeem Shonubi, 15, presented a significant change in blood sugar relative to his medical history. This sent him to the emergency room and led to a two-day stay at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, where he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
When he first heard his diagnosis, Hakeem was surprised—and devastated. He hadn’t felt ill at all. “I knew nothing about it,” he says.
The fact that Hakeem’s condition was discovered by a routine visit shows how important seeing a pediatrician regularly can be. But there are also some symptoms to look out for that children commonly present prior to diagnosis, according to Wolf. These symptoms can include frequent urination, drinking a lot, fruity-scented breath, confusion and fatigue.
They can prove difficult for parents to spot, especially if they have multiple children. That’s why knowing the risk factors for diabetes is helpful.
The risk factors for type 1 include a family history of type 1 diabetes and the right age, as the condition most commonly develops in children, teens or young adults. Type 2 diabetes is more likely to develop if you meet any of the following criteria: age 45+, overweight, have a close relative with type 2, have a low level of physical activity, are a member of certain ethnic groups or have prediabetes.
Prediabetes, as Wolf explains it, is when someone has a higher-than-normal blood sugar level, but not high enough to indicate type 2 diabetes yet. Parents should know that even if their child has prediabetes, lifestyle changes can help prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes, according to Centers for Disease Control.
Two years after his diagnosis, Hakeem has become something of an expert on handling his condition. He manages his diabetes with routine visits to the Children’s Center, healthy lifestyle choices, frequent visits to the gym, sports activities and including a healthy amount of vegetables in his diet.
He also has the support of his mother, Nimota Shonubi. One way Wolf says parents can support their children is to highlight successful people and role models who have diabetes, such as Tom Hanks, Nick Jonas or Sonia Sotomayor.
“A lot of people are very worried about complications,” Wolf says. “We tell our families and children that that doesn’t have to be them. ‘As long as you take care of your diabetes, that’s not going to happen’.”
For managing type 2 diabetes, Wolf recommends planning balanced meals with a nutrition team, making sure to get enough fruits and vegetables, staying physically active and avoiding sugary beverages and unhealthy foods.
Parents should look for local support groups, camps and programs. Wolf herself founded Camp Charm City, an annual five-day camp for children ages 6 to 12, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University.
Wolf, who remains the camp’s medical director, says the camp is a place where kids with diabetes can be kids while they learn to eat nutritious meals and
monitor their glucose levels.
The social benefits Wolf has observed from the camp have been huge. Prior to attending, many of the children had never met another child with their condition, but once they find themselves surrounded by a whole camp of these students, they start to feel like they aren’t so different after all.