Every year 70,000 children are admitted to hospital with a head injury, whether traumatic (as a result of an accident or fall) or acquired (possibly due to an infection or tumour).
The human brain takes around 20 years to develop fully, so one of the biggest challenges of dealing with children who have suffered a brain injury is being able to predict the impact of that injury on their development; if part of the brain is injured during the crucial early stages of development, a child may never be able to pick up some of the skills that would normally be expected. Some of the effects might not become apparent until the injured part of the brain starts to be used.
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Symptoms of brain injuries in children
Every individual suffering a brain injury potentially faces a wide range of difficulties, from minor short term memory lapses to serious long term physical and learning disabilities. Some parents talk about a personality change as their child’s behaviour alters post-injury, which can be immensely distressing.
Each child’s experience – and response – will be very different, and whilst some effects will be immediately apparent, others could take weeks, months or even years to manifest themselves. Some of the more common symptoms include:
- Weakness of limbs
- Difficulty speaking, understanding and using language
- Tiredness, struggling with concentration – often talked about as ‘fatigue’ by professionals
- Changes in behaviour – irritability, behaving impulsively or inappropriately
- Learning difficulties
- Problems with memory
- Difficulty processing information
- Anxiety and depression
- Find it harder to organise and plan properly
- A tendency to be more self-centred, and have trouble putting themselves ‘in someone else’s shoes’
- A severe acquired brain injury may lead to children losing the ability to walk or talk permanently or cause difficulties with eating and drinking.
Rehabilitation for children with a brain injury
As the condition is so varied, there is no single treatment but there are opportunities for children to get back some of the skills they’ve lost through the ongoing process of rehabilitation – which might include physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.
Rehabilitation aims to give children their very best chances at making improvements and to provide children and young people with as much independence as possible. There may be treatment ‘goals’ in regaining skills and independence, and you will be given guidance on what you can realistically expect as a family.
Different therapies may take place:
- While a child is an inpatient in hospital.
- At a specialist centre with a multi-disciplinary approach offering lots of different treatment options. Children might stay or visit.
- In the community: therapists or care staff come to the child’s home, school or a local centre.
Rehabilitation is a long process and it is quite possible that your child will experience all of the above at different stages. If their rehabilitation starts in hospital, there will normally be a discharge planning meeting to discuss their care plan on leaving hospital.
The impact on the family of a child with a brain injury
It’s inevitable that a child suffering a brain injury will impact on every member of their family and almost every part of family life. From the initial trauma to the stresses of returning home, and the day-to-day strains of managing the household, the burden on the family can be significant. There may also be a considerable financial impact too, for example, if a parent has to give up work to provide full- or part-time care or to enable frequent hospital trips, or to buy furniture and assistive equipment, or to make home adaptations to accommodate the child’s needs.
Relationships within the family may have to adjust to account for enormous changes in circumstances over a short space of time, and there are also likely to be times when parents may struggle to come to terms with what’s happened. They may experience feelings of shock, blame and denial, as well as a sense of mourning for the child they had before the change; they will worry about how other people will respond, and be concerned about the future.
All of this is perfectly normal, as is the fact that these feelings may change or evolve over a period of time.
The way that siblings react will vary enormously depending on their age, temperament and emotional maturity, and may change as the recovery process progresses. It is not uncommon for brothers or sisters to feel a combination of sadness and sense of loss just like the parents. They may also feel anger and jealousy if they feel they are not getting the same attention as before, or hurt and confused if they think they are being ‘kept in the dark’, and generally unsettled by changes to routines.
Look after yourself… ask for help
Evidence suggests that a supportive family environment can make a positive difference to a child’s recovery. It is extremely important that parents remember to look after themselves – physically and emotionally – and other children in the family at this difficult time and seek help and support if they need it.
You can find details of charities, support groups and other useful links by clicking here, but if you are concerned about anyone in your family, your GP may be able to help you find appropriate services.
The Child Brain Injury Trust support families and professionals working with children and young people who find themselves in need of information about what’s happened and how to cope.
We also work closely with Brain Injury is BIG, a registered charity for the families of people with severe brain injuries. They have a website, an online discussion forum and a telephone helpline so that connecting with someone who knows exactly what you’re going through is never too far away.
Visit the Brain Injury is BIG website here.