By Martha McLaughlin
Your child’s brain injury can seem overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of it. It’s true that you can’t provide healing alone, but you can help create an environment that promotes it. What your child needs from you will vary with circumstances, but there are multiple ways to provide both logistical and emotional support.
Helping with Cognitive Issues
Cognitive and memory deficits are common symptoms of a brain injury, and there are many ways to help your child in these areas while the brain is healing. Suggestions include the following:
- Write down anything important your child needs to remember. This can include names and phone numbers, and, depending on circumstances, steps to be followed for self-care routines or family chores.
- Make photo albums with labeled pictures of family members, friends, important places and significant life events.
- As much as possible, keep to a regular daily routine and consider making a written schedule to be followed. Make sure the schedule includes plenty of time for rest.
- Keep a printed calendar on the wall and mark off the passing days.
- Follow the advice of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Keep items your child uses frequently in a visible and easily accessible location.
- Make a scrapbook focusing specifically on the period after the injury occurred. This can include pictures of the child at various points in the recovery process, significant events and dates and pictures of the doctors, nurses and others who’ve been of help. The book can serve multiple purposes, including documenting recovery progress and helping to educate others.
Helping with Emotional Issues
In addition to cognitive and memory issues, emotional symptoms are also common in brain injuries. Your child may cry more often or become easily agitated and irritable. These symptoms are often challenging for parents, in part because your child’s emotions generally affect your own.
Sometimes your child’s emotional reactions are tied to a particular circumstance, and sometimes they’re more directly related to the effects of the injury. Either way, it’s important to be patient and do what’s possible to reduce unnecessary stressors.
Depending on the age of your child, circumstances that can provoke strong emotions include the following:
- Awareness of limitations – Your child may be frustrated and grieved by the inability to remember things and perform tasks that were once second nature. It can be helpful to focus on signs of progress and be ready to provide reminders of the gains already made.
- Loss of independence – You’re probably highly focused on keeping your child safe, and that’s likely to include placing new restrictions on activities. A BrainLine article recommends addressing the issue in a number of ways. The authors suggest planning as many activities as possible in your own home or the home of a trusted adult, so supervision can be provided discreetly. They also recommend discussing with your child’s friends and siblings, as well as your child, what activities are appropriate, and letting as many people as possible know about the importance of a safe environment. Place activities in categories, such as those your child can participate in freely, those that require adult supervision, and those that are off limits. Schedule family time where new, low-risk activities are explored, and encourage open and ongoing communication, allowing your child to express frustrations honestly.1
- Overstimulation – An injured and recovering brain can easily become overwhelmed. Too much noise and activity can provoke irritation and agitation. Family members can help by using headphones on their electronic devices and making sure there’s at least one quiet area in the home that can serve as a retreat. A brain injury fact sheet by the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center suggests limiting visitors to one or two at a time and making sure only one person is speaking, using simple words and sentences. Try to limit stimulation to one sense (sight, sound or touch) at a time and avoid crowded and noisy environments.2 The brain can also be stimulated and damaged by toxins, so it’s wise to use low-toxicity cleaning, pest control and personal care products.
It’s easy to let your child’s irritability cause you to respond with frustration and anger of your own. Although these are natural feelings, when they influence how you interact, it can create a negative cycle that isn’t helpful for either of you.
Because stress can make negative responses more likely, it’s important to find ways to relax and take care of yourself. The healthier you are, both physically and emotionally, the better you’ll be able to communicate to your child that you’re on the same team and working toward common goals. Support groups and counseling can often be of great help for the entire family. You’re all in this together and share in both the challenges and the victories.
1 Bonner, Cynthia H. “Children with Traumatic Brain Injury: A Parents’ Guide.” BrainLine, June 19, 2009.
2 Novack, Thomas, and Tamara Bushnik. “Understanding TBI: Part 4 – The Impact of a Recent TBI on Family Members and What They Can Do To Help With Recovery.” Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center, Accessed January 1, 2018.