Undeniably, one’s family can be an integral part of diabetes self-management. Family can provide emotional support and help with maintaining specific lifestyle components related to self-care. While research has established that support (including support from family) can be an integral part of diffusing stressors related to diabetes self-management, studies also suggest that family can be one of the primary causes of stress. Anyone living with diabetes can probably attest to the challenges of having your support system be both a blessing and a burden. The complexity of this relationship, in which encouraging can also seem like nagging, is often amplified around the holiday season when self-care routines might take a backseat to celebratory plans. What is the best way to deal with your diabetes support system when well-meaning becomes, well,… annoying? Here are a few tips from the experts on minimizing the drama and dealing with diabetes-related dilemmas during the holiday season.
Inevitably, you know the critiques or commentary regarding your diabetes care will happen — it is just a matter of when it will occur. Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE) and the Guilt-Free RD®, suggests preparing in advance for the family member who might be “policing” those holiday gatherings and offering unhelpful or unwanted suggestions.
“Be prepared with a ‘standby’ statement to let [him/her] know that you appreciate the care/concern but you are making choices that fit into your plan and that work for you,” suggests Dobbins. She even encourages those she works with to consider ahead of time who might comment and even what they might say to you in order to think through how to best deal with potential advice from others. Preparation provides self-confidence, the key to being able to address negative or unhelpful comments directly and build a better relationship with those individuals in your family who want to be part of your diabetes support team.
Dealing with family is one thing, but what about those awkward comments from those individuals who may not be part of your diabetes support team? Let’s call them the dreaded “diabetes police.” They can be found at gatherings, parties and kitchens year-round but can be especially vocal around the holidays, when the frequency of parties, and specialty food items increase. The worst part? They are sometimes not even well-educated on diabetes self-care but feel the need to interject as if they are experts on living with diabetes.
“Depending on the person and the comment, someone with diabetes may choose not to say anything, reassure the person that everything is fine or to educate the person that yes, this food (bread, dessert, juice, etc.) can and does fit into a healthy diet for diabetes,” Dobbins says.
Educating others can serve to dispel myths regarding diabetes, and also reassure them that you are the expert in your own care. Simply stating, “It sounds like you have an interest in diabetes care. From my experience as a person living with diabetes and what I’ve learned from my health-care providers, that is not exactly true. This, however, [insert whatever advice you need to clarify] is helpful.” It might even open up a dialogue about great sources for information about diabetes.
What if your own diabetes support team person is ill-informed? Consider inviting him or her to the next appointment with a diabetes educator, or to attend diabetes education classes with you. Learning how to talk to your family support members about ways they can be helpful often arises during appointments and classes. It is not just about educating individuals about diabetes self-management, but also assessing ways they can personally support you in your efforts to take care of yourself. What one person with diabetes may want in terms of support, another person may find completely irritating, which is why it is so important to define what you consider supportive. After all, ultimately, the person living with diabetes is responsible for his or her own diabetes care but can benefit from acknowledging how family can best assist in helping with diabetes care.
Don’t make food the focus
One area that can be particularly challenging and often opens itself up for unwanted advice is around food. The tricky part? Food is often the focus of holiday gatherings. So what is the best way for individuals with diabetes to shift their focus at these gatherings but still find joy in holiday eating? Author and 2015 AADE Educator of the Year, Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDE, CDN, says, “What you choose [to eat] is completely your choice. However, if you prefer to eat less of the decadent foods, select what you want and if possible move away from where the food is displayed. Hang out with friends, family or co-workers in a different area away from the main food display. You’ll enjoy some of your favorite foods while staying mindful of what you eat.”
Similarly, Dobbins encourages individuals with diabetes to really enjoy and savor small portions of the foods they really want but also to consider what foods they might want to pass on. Food is part of enjoying life, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the primary source of enjoyment at gatherings. Embrace the conversation that occurs and perhaps start a new tradition with your family that includes incorporating activities everyone enjoys, whether it is a simple card game, talking an outdoor stroll after the meal or going to an ice skating rink.
Know when to walk away
Knowing when it is best to remove yourself from a situation is personal, but recognize that this is also a strategy for dealing with unwanted comments. “Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a situation or just say, ‘I’ve got this,’ because you have the lived diabetes experience,” Weiner says. “If you didn’t ask someone for their opinion on your food [or diabetes care], consider politely letting them know you live with diabetes and make your own choices each and every day. Hopefully that will let them know you are quite capable of making your own decisions.”
Understanding both sides is important. Having a diabetes support team is important, and family can play an integral role in that team. Remember that although ultimately diabetes is the responsibility of the individual living with the disease, diabetes doesn’t just impact that person. It can and often does impact those who love and care about the individual with diabetes.
Just as managing diabetes day to day is sometimes stressful, sitting on the sidelines of a loved one’s diabetes care and feeling helpless are also stressful. Learning how to communicate with family members about the best way they can support your diabetes care is part of the process. Additionally, becoming proficient at addressing some of the unhelpful commentary that may occur from other individuals serving as “diabetes police” in your life is also an important skill. Handling unwanted advice takes practice, patience, sometimes the willingness to educate others and also the recognition ability to know when it best to simply walk away.
Tips to de-stress diabetes self-care during the holidays
Registered Dietitians and Certified Diabetes Educators Melissa Joy Dobbins and Susan Weiner offer their top three strategies for simplifying the stress of diabetes self-care during the holiday season.
Tip #1: Plan ahead
Both Dobbins and Weiner agree that packing appropriately and planning ahead are key for being better prepared to deal with stress and unexpected challenges. “If we just hope it’s not going to be stressful or that we can just cope without a plan, we are setting ourselves up for failure,” Dobbins says. Planning and preparation take away some of the responsibility of needing to make a decision in the moment or realizing that medications or glucometer supplies were forgotten left at home.
Tip #2: Monitor your blood glucose
Weiner suggests keeping up with blood glucose monitoring during the holiday season. Utilizing a continuous glucose meter or doing a few extra fingersticks during the holidays can increase awareness of blood glucose trends during a time when food and activity levels often differ significantly from daily routines.
Tip #3: Find relaxation techniques
Finding effective relaxation strategies is personal and an important part of diabetes management, both Dobbins and Weiner say. Deep breathing exercises, taking a walk, participating in a yoga class, talking with a friend, listening to music or watching a funny movie can all be ways to alleviate stress and relax.
Want to learn more about managing diabetes during the holidays? Read “Finding Balance: Tips to Maintain Your Health During the Holidays,” “Master Holiday Health Pitfalls” and “Have a Relaxing Holiday: 7 Tips to Relieve Seasonal Stress.”