The Caregiver's Journey

Communicating with Your Child

Having a parent with TBI can be frightening for a child who looks to his or her parent to provide strength and safety.

The parent with TBI may no longer act the same as he or she did before the injury. Your family member/parent with TBI may be angry, depressed, or uncertain.

As a result, the special parent-child bond that existed previously has changed.

Children may be confused and upset about what is going on. This could be due to worry about a parent’s condition or concerns about changes in their parents’ relationship. It could also be due to financial strains, or simply adjusting to the new “normal.”

It is important to recognize that your children are grieving, just as you are. They may withdraw from social activities with peers, have mood swings, become withdrawn or disruptive, do poorly in school, and show other behavioral problems.

Children also need time and space to be kids. Communicate with your child that he or she is not to blame for the TBI.

Some children may need to take on some caregiving tasks for the parent or for younger children in the family. Children who care for parents or other relatives experience considerable conflict over the reversal of roles between parent and child.

Make sure any tasks that your child takes on — household chores, for example — are suitable for his or her age. Strive as much as possible to find other adults to help you, rather than relying on your children to play a major caregiving role.

You can help your children by explaining TBI in a way that they can understand. Ask a healthcare provider to talk with your children.

Build new family routines, and keep an eye out for signs that your child is not coping well.

If your child appears to be depressed for a long time or he or she begins taking on risky behaviors, seek professional help.

How Can I Tell My Child about TBI?

It is difficult to explain TBI to a child. Yet it is vital to tell your child what is going on. Some adults try to protect children from the truth because they think they are too young to understand. Children of almost any age are aware that something is wrong and they want to know what is happening.

Communicate in an age-appropriate way what has happened to your family member with TBI. Protecting your children by withholding information may backfire. Children have active imaginations that may create a scenario worse than reality.

How you tell your child about TBI depends on the age of the child.

What Are Specific Ways to Explain TBI to a Child?

Here are some suggestions for how to explain TBI to a child:

  • The brain is similar to the command station of a space ship. If a meteorite hit the command station, the crew would not be able to control what the space ship does. If the brain is hurt, it may send out the wrong signals to the body or no signals at all. A person with TBI may have a hard time walking, talking, hearing, or seeing.
  • The brain is the computer for the body. When injured, it doesn’t boot up properly, runs slower, has less memory, etc.
  • A broken bone will usually heal and be as good as new. A brain injury may not heal as completely. Even though the person with the injury may look the same, he or she may still be injured. These injuries might include having a hard time paying attention or remembering what you told him or her. He or she may get tired easily and need to sleep. He or she may say or do things that seem strange or embarrassing. He or she may get angry and shout a lot.
  • Many people develop anger as a direct effect of the damage to the brain. In other words, the parts of the brain that normally stop angry flare-ups and feelings have been damaged and do not do their jobs as well. The parent with TBI may be mad because he or she can’t do the things he or she used to do. His or her feelings may be hurt because others treat him or her differently than before the injury.
  • A cut may take a few days to heal, a broken bone a few weeks. Getting better after a brain injury can take months or even years. Sometimes, the person will not get 100 percent better.
  • Brain injury changes people. These changes can be confusing. Try to remember that the changes you see are caused by the brain injury. You can still love and care about the person.