Managing Type 1 diabetes is a life-long problem. And from driving and dieting to preparing for college, adolescents with the disease face their own particular challenges. Carnegie Mellon Professor of Psychology Vicki Helgeson is working to make things easier.
She became interested in teenage illness seven years ago while studying the effects of gender on health issues.
She explained, "If we were going to figure out how we socialize men and women in different ways that affect their health, we had to look at a time when socialization occurs. That's adolescence."
Helgeson began a study of children with Type 1 diabetes that would follow them from age 12 through 17. It quickly became her passion.
"It's such a difficult disease and these kids have to deal with it forever," she said. "Most people don't understand all the things they have to go through. There's so much that we can do to help them."
Now at the end of her study, Helgeson described her most striking conclusion.
"The kids who did the best over the course of adolescence were the ones whose parents remained involved in the treatment," she said. "There's this norm that once a child reaches adolescence that parents are going to withdraw a little bit and kids are going to be more responsible. That doesn't always work because it's such a complicated illness to manage."
She hopes her findings can lead to the development of more family-focused programs aimed at educating parents on staying involved in their teen's care, working together to strike that careful balance between dependence and autonomy.
Helgeson recently received a grant to continue her study into the children's next five years — the under-researched area of emerging adulthood. She's also proposing further research into another preliminary finding.
"The extent to which kids feel like they're accomplishing their goals affects how they take care of their diabetes," she explained. She'd like to study how parents can impede or facilitate these goals.
Helgeson conducts her work with the help of numerous undergraduates.
"I have a lot of students who are pre-med, or who are biology/psychology majors," she added. "They really yearn for research where they get to talk to people with health problems. It's an experience they really value here."