Relationships with children, parents, siblings, cousins, and other extended family will change for the person with a brain injury. These changes will be more noticeable if you live with them. The biggest changes these relationships will go through are communication and responsibilities/role reversals.
For the purposes of this page, the following content is written using examples of relationships between a person with a brain injury and children. These changes are applicable in all family relationships.
After a brain injury, a person may experience trouble with communication for a variety of reasons. They may be coping with changes to their cognitive abilities that make conversing, paying attention, or understanding others challenging. This is incredibly frustrating, especially for kids who may not understand why things have changed. Kids may become withdrawn or less talkative if they feel like they can’t easily communicate with their parent. They may also turn to you because they struggle to relate to their other parent.
Without communication, family relationships can quickly run into obstacles. That’s why it’s important to be as honest and forthcoming as possible while keeping in mind the age of the child and the appropriateness of the information. Children may not fully understand what’s happening and will need you (or the person with a brain injury) to take the lead in teaching them how to share their thoughts and feelings.
Tips for communicating with the person with a brain injury for family members
- Find ways to connect
- Children of all ages may find it difficult to understand why things have changed, and how to adapt to those changes. As a result, they may not feel as connected to the person with a brain injury. Find something that they can do with the kids – puzzle time, bonding over a favourite television series, or a love of nature – and prioritize that time. During the bonding activity, encourage the kids and the person with a brain injury to speak openly about how they’re feeling or what you’re thinking. If the person with a brain injury leads by example, children will follow suit. You may need to help get the conversation started or instigate the activity, but the goal is to help facilitate bonding time.
- Focus on respect
- Disagreements are common among family members no matter what. After the brain injury, you may find that it’s not as easy to navigate disagreements between parents and children. They all may feel more reactive, angry, and hurt. This can happen quite often with children. Sometimes they say or do things without thinking, try to push their parents’ buttons, or may lash out because they don’t know how to cope with their feelings. But do your best not to let anger, sadness, or hurt feelings interfere with being respectful. Coach your partner to do the same. Your kids need to see that there is a more productive, respective way to communicate.
- Listen actively
- When you and a family member are having a conversation – no matter the seriousness of the subject – you should be actively listening to what they have to say. This may be challenging for children, but they will pick up on your example (even if it takes a little time).
If when conversing with the person with a brain injury you need them to speak more slowly, break down the conversation into smaller sections, or even record what they’re saying, tell them that is what you need in order to be an effective listener.
- Practice constructive communication
- It’s important to communicate constructively. Family members should think carefully about what they want to say – they may even want to write it down.
- Remove distractions
- Distractions such as the television, phones, gaming devices, or additional stimuli make it difficult to fully engage in conversation. These distractions should be removed (or the conversation should move to a quiet, distraction-free zone) so everyone can focus. It may be beneficial to have conversations with one person at a time or remind family members to speak one at a time, so the person with a brain injury can focus.
- Respect the other person’s space
- Everyone needs space to be alone, process their thoughts and feelings, or just to do things they want to do. It’s important to respect that need for space, and make sure everyone knows it’s okay to take the time they need.
- Work with a therapist
- A psychologist or psychiatrist with a specialty in family counselling/brain injury will be able to address communication issues that are affecting you all. Therapy is a long-term process, so results won’t happen overnight – but if you are committed, you will see progress.
After a brain injury, the person may not be able to take care of their children the same way. They may not be able to cook dinner for them, pick them up from school, or play with them – at least not right away.
These changes will be challenging and will generate a lot of emotions for all parties involved. You may feel guilty or anxious about your family members adjusting to the new roles. You or your kids may feel pressure to take on more responsibilities, or even feel resentment at the changes in their daily life.
It’s important to talk with your partner about the responsibilities involved in childcare. Decide who can do what (keeping in mind additional responsibilities). Maybe the parent who used to pick up the kids from school is now the parent that makes lunches. If the parent with a brain injury is unable to take on any childcare responsibilities, you may need to ask other friends/family members for help, or look into professional childcare services.
If your children are older, you can speak with them about taking on some responsibilities. For example, a child who can drive may be able to pick up a younger sibling from school or band practice. It’s important to keep in mind that while children are active members of the household, they also only have so much time to be kids. Some tasks or responsibilities will not be appropriate for them.
Other responsibilities will change as well, including household chores, financial earnings, and more. These will also need to be examined and discussed.
Tips for managing changes in responsibility
- Be patient with each other
- Adjusting to change takes a lot of time and patience. Everyone may be experiencing some trouble being patient. It’s important to try and remind your partner and your children that everyone is feeling some stress, and they may need extra time or extra support.
- Take breaks
- Responsibilities are important, but so is personal time. Breaks from responsibilities – whether it’s an afternoon, an evening, or a weekend – will allow you all to rest and reset.
- Use your manners
- Saying please and thank you and demonstrating that you value the time and effort of your family will make them feel loved and acknowledged. They in turn will do the same.