Jessica Burton, school psychologist at Melican Middle School in Northborough, Massachsuetts, agrees with Jake's feelings about the need for friendships. "As much as parents don't want to hear this, there is a point in your life when friendships and acceptance among peers becomes more important than pleasing your parents."
Friendships can be especially important to kids and teens with diabetes, because they help to give them a sense of belonging. Research has shown that resilience (the ability to bounce back from tough situations) often comes from being and feeling connected with others.
Ms. Burton goes on to say that kids and teens who have gone through some type of trauma, whether it is dealing with a disease, or dealing with abuse or death, need to feel "normal" again. Friendships can help them to feel more like everyone else, hanging out and doing fun things. Many kids and teens with diabetes say it makes them feel "different" from everyone else, so having a supportive group of friends who understand them really helps.
Friendships begin even at the youngest age. Even two-year-olds are learning the benefits of friendships when they are playing side by side but not really together. They are beginning to understand acceptance, how to resolve arguments, and how to see things from another's point of view. These are all important skills for building friendships later on in life.
So now that you know some of the reasons why friendships are important, you probably want to know how you can make (and keep) good friends—right? Well, here are some tips from kids and teens who have made, and been, great friends.
1. Be honest with your friends about your diabetes. The more open and comfortable you are, the more likely your friends will feel the same way, and the better friends they will be. Bretton Tyler, 10, from Manitoba, Canada remembers when he was at recess on his first day of school. Someone accidentally grabbed his shirt and the tubing attached to his insulin pump. Imagine the other kid's surprise when he stood there holding Bretton's pump in his hand. All the kids came around and asked him if he was a robot! Now many of those kids are Bretton's friends, and they are there to help when he needs it.
2. Know your diabetes and know it well. You will be the best educator to your friends and peers. Be able to explain to them why diabetes is NOT contagious. Saige Harrington, 18, of Idaho, tells her friends that diabetes is a disease that affects part of your pancreas, which shuts down and then doesn't produce the insulin your body needs to counter the affects of food, so she has to take insulin manually. Valerio, 15, from Rome, Italy just tells them he needs insulin to feel well. Either answer is perfectly acceptable. People just want to know they won't catch it and that you are going to be okay.
3. Make sure your friends know the signs of high and low blood sugar. Jonathan Roland, 6, from Tennessee says his lips go completely white when he has a low. Others, like Jake Beaty, get very shaky and weak. When his blood sugar is high, he is very thirsty and makes constant trips to the bathroom. If your friends know what to look for they can get you help when you need it, whether it's getting an adult or giving you a snack. Also make sure they know what to do in an extreme emergency.
Naomi Kingery, 16, of Texas, says, "I taught one of my friends that sometimes if I act hyper and my cheeks are really red, then my blood sugar might be high or low. I was in history class with her one day and I was in such a good mood, jumping around and being loud. And she said, 'Naomi, check your blood! Look at how red your cheeks are!' I think I was around 50 or so, and if it weren't for her I would have gone a lot lower before I realized. It's amazing how aware your friends are."
4. Find ways to connect with others with diabetes. Jake recommends going to diabetes camp. He says, "I went to the Texas Lion's Camp in 2004. The staff was all trained, with a few of them having diabetes themselves. Basically, you get to go hang out with kids your age and sort of get away from the constant pressures of diabetes. You get to interact with other people who have loads of advice." Being with other kids who experience the same things you do can be very therapeutic and give you that boost of self-confidence that diabetes can sometimes wear down.
Bretton's mom connected with another family on the internet support group for diabetes, www.childrenwithdiabetes.com. After a year of trading emails, they finally met. That was several years ago and now they spend summer holidays together. Not only are they pen pals, but they also call themselves "pump pals."
5. Exercise! Keep fit to be healthy. Naomi Kingery has found numerous benefits from practicing yoga. Once she started yoga, her blood sugar not only got lower overall, it also stabilized. She adds, "Yoga has saved my life. It's lowered my insulin dosage, kept me in shape, and has also kept me really calm during chaotic times." She got a few of her friends involved, too, and now she is a certified yoga teacher. Whether it is a team sport, an aerobic class, or a jog around the neighborhood, grab a friend and go! Everyone can benefit from a routine form of exercise and it's much more fun to exercise with others than alone.
6. Be proud of who you are and what you can do. Diabetes does not have to define who you are and who you can be. Leah, 17, describes her life as an onion, diabetes only being one layer of the many layers of an onion. The other layers are her dance, her soccer, her friendships, etc. Do you want to be known as the kid with diabetes or the kid who kicks butt in soccer, works hard in school, or is dependable and a good friend?
7. Be the best friend you can be. Focus on what you can give and do for others, not what they can do for you. Alison Lafferty, 8, of New Jersey, has been a great role model for her friends. Some of them have realized the importance of taking care of their health and now look after themselves better. In return, she is taking care of herself through exercise and eating right and is able to share her knowledge with her friends. Everyone wins!
What Kind of Friend Will You Be?
Now that you've read all about the importance of friendship, you probably have a whole new appreciation for your friends. And you're probably thinking of some friend stories from your own life. If you have great friends, it's probably because you're a great friend yourself. You know how to listen, accept people for who they are, and offer support.
If you wish you had more friends, or better friends, the best thing you can do is take the first step. Find someone who needs cheering up and tell them a joke. Stand up for someone who's being picked on or discriminated against. Find out what you like to do and join a group or team that shares your interests. Before you know it, you'll be surrounded by the best friends you've ever had, and be part of a solid support system.
This article appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Countdown for Kids magazine.