The Children of Brain Injured Parents – Part 1
My Parent Has a Brain Injury
All of us are affected emotionally when someone in the family experiences a brain injury. For children, it is particularly difficult to understand what has happened to their loved one and to process their feelings and thoughts around what has happened. Ideally, age-appropriate support would be available but unfortunately, this is not routinely offered to the children of brain-injured parents.
Sometimes children feel they are to blame for their parent’s distress and would benefit greatly from being reassured that:
- what has happened to their parent is not their fault and
- the resulting problems and stress in the house is also not their fault.
My Parent is Different Now
When someone in the family is brain injured there is a lot of adapting to do. All the family members, including the children, have to learn to cope with the fact that that person may have changed a great deal:
- they may look different
- find it difficult to talk
- have mobility issues
- the relationships between family members may change drastically and
- they may not be able to engage with the day to day activities that they used to – from the child’s perspective perhaps no one will help with homework anymore or take them to after-school activities.
What Challenges might my Family Face?
All this is very difficult for everyone in the family but the children may face particular challenges. Children may not understand what has happened, they may realise that their parent is poorly but have no concept that they may not recover entirely. They may also believe that they have somehow caused their parent to get ill, or that they are the source of the distress within the family following the injury.
The cognitive and behavioural changes in the brain injured parent may cause attachment wounds in the child that can continue to affect the child into adulthood. Young children especially may be confused and frightened by their parent’s altered way of being. Both parent and child may find it very difficult to find a way to relate to one another, leaving the child insecure and confused as to where and why the care they once experienced has gone.
Children may struggle at school – they might be teased by peers about having a parent who is different, they may no longer be able to have friends back to the house or do the social activities that they used to enjoy. They may well be unable to ask for help or to explain the difficulties they are facing, they may act out in ways that are problematic. Teachers may not understand or even be aware of what is going on at home.
Brain injuries can cause many other challenges like having to relocate or having financial difficulties. Children may not have the emotional resilience to cope well with these things or even understand how far-reaching the changes in their lives actually are. As they get older they may adapt their own life plans to accommodate their changed family – they may struggle with conflicting feelings of care, love, responsibility and resentment and guilt.
Children may be required to become carers in some capacity, if not with household tasks, then emotionally. Small children may feel that their role as the child has been taken from them as a result of the parent suffering a severe brain injury. Parents may no longer celebrate the achievements of the child because they are focused on the progress that the brain injured parent is making instead. This can lead to the child actually being, or at least feeling, neglected.
There will usually be various different support options from the services offered to the brain injured parent and the non-injured parent, but none for the children.
The relationship between the non-injured parent and child may suffer too as the non-injured parent struggles with the various different practical challenges they must now face, as well as the emotional suffering that they are experiencing. This may leave the child very much alone.
Children are at risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear, anger and embarrassment. Some children may not express their distress leading adults to assume that everything is fine. These children will need an equal amount of support as those that are exhibiting more symptoms of distress.
This is part of a series of blogs addressing issues around children and brain injured parents.