Does Diabetes Affect Behavior in Kids?

Once upon a time, children who had diabetes nearly always had Type 1, a condition in which the body suddenly stops producing enough insulin for the body’s needs 2. Insulin is the hormone that regulates the level of sugar, or glucose, in the blood. People with Type 1 diabetes need insulin injections 2. Today, children can have either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes 25. In either case, there is no cure; diabetes can only be managed.

About Diabetes

The dramatic increase in obesity over the last few decades -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than one-third of American children and adolescents are obese -- has led to an increase in children with Type 2 diabetes 123. Unlike children with Type 1 diabetes, who are often of normal weight, Type 2 diabetics tend to be overweight; the disease develops relatively slowly and can sometimes be controlled with diet, exercise or oral medications 23. Both conditions require careful monitoring to ensure the diabetic doesn’t eat too much carbohydrate, which can send blood glucose levels soaring. A child on insulin also needs blood tests to determine her glucose levels so that her insulin dosage can be calculated correctly.

Blood Glucose

Hyperglycemia, or high blood glucose, can occur when a diabetic child eats too much carbohydrate -- especially simple carbohydrates such as candy or refined foods -- or if her blood glucose is out of control for some reason. Hypoglycemia, or low blood glucose, is usually the result of a child taking too much insulin, exercising heavily or eating too little. The brain needs glucose to function properly; a blood glucose that is too high or too low might affect emotions and behavior by affecting the brain. Severe hypoglycemia can cause irritability, sudden behavior or mood changes, difficulty paying attention or confusion, according to the Boston Children’s Hospital website.

Blood Glucose and Moods

Changes in blood glucose can affect children’s moods, according to a study reported in the September 2007 issue of Diabetes Care 2. Forty-two children with Type 1 diabetes were monitored over two different 72-hour periods 23. During the study, their parents filled out questionnaires about the children’s behavior, and the questionnaires were then correlated to the children’s blood sugar. The researchers found that when the children’s blood glucose was higher, the children were more likely to act out. Behavior deteriorated the longer the blood glucose remained elevated. When the blood sugar was in the desired range, the child was less likely to misbehave.

Diabetic Management

Diabetes is managed by balancing food intake -- including both amounts and types of food -- insulin or other diabetic medication and exercise. A diabetic child may need to check or have parents check her blood glucose several times a day. In addition, diabetics can develop problems if they become overly tired, stressed or develop an infection such as a cold. All of these activities require constant attention by both child and parents. This can be emotionally stressful for parents and child, which can affect emotions and behavior on both sides.

Feeling Different

Diabetes can also make a child feel different from her peers, which also might affect both emotions and behavior. Teenagers -- who tend to be rebellious -- may have a hard time with all of the necessary activities related to their diabetes, especially activities that involve their peers, such as having sweets at a party or staying up late for a football game. Teens may act out by ignoring the diabetic regimen that will keep them healthy or experiment with drugs and alcohol. Diabetics also have an increased risk of depression and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic website.