Relationships with your children, parents, siblings, cousins, and other extended family will change after a brain injury. These changes will be more noticeable if you live with them. The biggest changes your relationships will go through are communication and responsibilities/role reversals.
I kept having serious symptoms and personality changes…And no doctor or nurse prepared me or my family for any of that.
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.
Communication between family members is made up of conversation, gestures, and body language, all used to convey thoughts and feelings. After a brain injury, you may experience trouble with communication for a variety of reasons. You may be coping with changes to your cognitive abilities that make conversing, paying attention, or understanding others challenging. This is incredibly frustrating for all of you, especially kids who may not understand why things have changed and aren’t used to not getting your attention.
Without communication, family relationships can quickly run into obstacles. That’s why it’s important to be as honest and forthcoming as possible with your family members and be mindful of how you’re communicating with them. Children may not fully understand what’s happening and will need you to take the lead in teaching them how to share their thoughts and feelings.
Tips for communicating with your 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, you may not feel as connected to them. Find something that you can do with your kids - puzzle time, bonding over a favourite television series, or a love of nature - and prioritize that time. During your bonding activity, speak openly about how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking. You’re leading by example - if you feel comfortable, so will your children.
- Focus on respect
Disagreements are common among family members no matter what. After your brain injury, you may find that it’s not as easy to navigate disagreements. You 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. Your kids need to see that there is a more productive way to communicate and that respect is important no matter what.
- 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. If 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. It’s easy to become preoccupied with your topics and opinions - but don’t forget how important it is to listen to your family.
- Practice constructive communication
Practicing what you want to say is a great way to organize your thoughts. It also gives you time to write down/record your points, so you don’t forget them.
- Remove distractions
Distractions such as the television, bright lights, other conversations, or additional stimuli make it difficult for you to fully engage in conversation. These distractions should be removed (or you should move to a quiet, distraction-free zone) so you can focus. You should also have one conversation with one person at a time or remind family members to speak one at a time, so you can adjust your focus accordingly.
- 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 the other person in the relationship knows it’s okay to take the time they need.
- Work with a therapist
Communication is challenging, and it may become more challenging after your brain injury. 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.
Before a brain injury, you may have had more responsibilities around the house, been a financial provider and a caregiver. For example, you may have been responsible for cooking dinners, picking up kids, cleaning, or bedtime routines. After a brain injury, you may not be able to have the same responsibilities. This means that you may not be able to take care of your children the same way. You may not be able to cook dinner for them, pick them up from school, or play with them - at least not right away.
This change of responsibilities can impact the roles you have in your family. These changes will be challenging and will generate a lot of emotions. You may feel guilty or anxious about your family members adjusting to the new roles. Your kids may feel pressure to take on more adult responsibilities, or even feel resentment at the changes in their daily life.
Tips for managing changes in responsibility
- Be patient with each other
Adjusting to change takes a lot of time and patience. You may be experiencing some trouble using patience, or you may be focused on yourself Try to remember that your family members are feeling stress too, and they may need extra time or extra support.
- Take breaks
Responsibilities are important, but so is personal time. Giving someone a break from their 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.