The flexible family

One of your family members has diabetes, but in a way, the whole family has diabetes because each of you experiences this chronic disease in one way or another. Rosemary Flynn expands on the flexible family.

A family can be a single parent family or a large family, including others like a grandmother or a cousin.

The ups and downs of diabetes can bring emotional highs and lows that each of the family members must deal with, and that requires flexibility.

Family stressors, like arguments, divorce, or loss of a family member, can make blood glucose levels higher and that will negatively affect diabetes control in the long run. The family needs to be able to work together to resolve the problems and also to manage the diabetes.

In any family, the spouse or parents often worry about the person with diabetes. Have they eaten right? Are they managing their control enough to prevent complications? Have they exercised enough and safely? Are they losing weight as has been advised by the diabetes team? Worrying is a natural response in families, because they love each other.

The family worries a lot less when the person with diabetes takes responsibility for their diabetes and practises good management. It works the other way around too: if the person has family support, he or she worries a lot less.

Each family member must understand diabetes well

On the medical side, for the family to be supportive, each member needs to understand diabetes well. They need to know how to deal with hypoglycaemia and high blood glucose levels, the eating plan, the exercise plan, the medical plan and the management plan. Even the young ones can have an understanding at their level of development.

Understand that if the person with diabetes is a child, siblings can be resentful of all the attention given, or feel guilty, or feel anxious for their brother or sister. So, give them the space to talk about their feelings.

A balanced family

Family balance goes a long way to making diabetes self-care successful. Creating a balanced family can be done in the following ways:

  • Have family meetings to talk to each other about the things that concern you (include all who live in your home, even the little ones). Give everyone a turn to speak and respect what each family member has to say. Any diabetes information can be discussed this way. It allows for creative solutions to the problems to be found.
  • Talk to other families who have a member with diabetes. Attend family events organised by diabetes organisations or interested parties. This offers you support and helps you feel less isolated as you deal with the day-to-day care of diabetes. Sometimes other families, especially those who have many years of experience, can give good ideas on how to deal with family issues that arise because of diabetes.
  • Spend time with your family, doing things you all enjoy, and listen to what is going on in each member’s life. This makes each member feel they belong.
  • If you need to speak to one family member, set aside a special time to do this.

Create a flexible family by:

  • Having clear limits, expectations and rules which can be adapted to different situations.
  • Being committed to the decisions that are made in the family, but carry these out in a reasonable, flexible way.
  • Being respectful and kind to each other.
  • Solving problems together.
  • Valuing each member’s feelings.

Having a flexible family means that each person feels valued, understood and secure in their relationships at home. They can develop confidence and positive self-esteem both at home and outside of the home. They are less likely to struggle with anxiety and depression.

A flexible family will enable both the person with diabetes and all the other members of the family to go into the future in a positive way.

Rosemary Flynn


Rosemary Flynn is a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Diabetes in Johannesburg. She has worked with children, families and adults with diabetes for 24 years, enabling them to overcome their anxieties about their condition and to deal with the difficult events in their lives.