Health Topics

How to talk to a child about diabetes


January 23, 2017

Terms can be confusing. Here are 6 tips for easing fear for a child with diabetes.


Lily, a 6-year-old diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a couple of weeks earlier, came into the child life playroom at the Vanderbilt Eskind Diabetes Clinic. As she quietly looked around, I introduced myself as a child life specialist, and we started to draw pictures together. As we were drawing, I asked her what she knew about diabetes.

She remained quiet and continued to draw pictures on the dry-erase board.

“Is there glue in my blood?”

“What makes you think that there is glue in your blood?”

It seems that when she heard the doctor talking about sugar in her blood, she kept hearing the word “glue.” I knew immediately that she had misinterpreted the term glucose. I took a marker and wrote the word “glucose” on the board, said the word out loud and explained that glucose is a fancy word for sugar.

As a child life specialist in a healthcare setting, one of my roles is to interpret medical language for children and teens.

Many times children will practice the language of diabetes through their play, activity or discussions, depending on the age. It’s a time to reflect, practice and finally master new information. In these moments is an opportunity to intervene, to clear up misinterpretations — and ultimately begin to decrease fear.

When a child enters the diabetes clinic, he or she has already encountered medical terminology. Understanding those is important in managing diabetes. Take, for example, the word “ketones.” If you had never heard it, you might focus on the familiar parts — “keys” you carry or “tones” you hear in music — and wonder what it has to do with diabetes.

If you, as an adult, have to look up what a medical word means, recognize that your child probably doesn’t understand its meaning either. Here are some tips for talking about diabetes with your child:

1. Keep in mind the age of the child.

The developmental level is important to consider when explaining medical terms and conditions to children and teens. Misinterpreted terminology can increase fears and anxieties.

2. Be alert to medical terminology.

Words may have dual meanings, such as “key-tones,” “die-abetes,” “glue-cose,” and IV (ivy). Provide a concrete explanation that paints a picture of what the word means.

3. Ask open-ended questions.

These can help you understand what your child is thinking, such as “What part makes you think that or feel that?” In this way, you can get the child’s authentic understanding without influencing his or her thoughts, feelings or ideas.

4. Reflect on your child’s responses.

This validates that you heard and understand. “Glue in your blood. It sounds like glue in your blood.”

5. Clear up misinterpreted words.

“There is no glue in your blood; that is a fancy word for sugar.”

6. Find an age-appropriate book to share.

Books can help reinforce your explanations. A storybook for a young child uses simple language, while those written for older children provide more information and may help answer questions like, “How will I explain diabetes to my friends?”

And remember, sometimes the best interactions with children occur when you have a conversation while doing something else.


This post was written by Leslie Grissim, a certified child life specialist working in the pediatric clinic of the Vanderbilt Eskind Diabetes Center. She has been at Vanderbilt since 1992 and enjoys being active in sports and the outdoors, including hiking, camping, running and playing volleyball.