If your teen has suffered a traumatic brain injury, they may appear to look the same on the outside, but inside their brain has undergone massive changes. They may have difficulty moving, speaking, or concentrating, and they might experience lingering physical and emotional symptoms and mood changes. The recovery process from traumatic brain injuries will be a new journey for your teen and the entire family system.
Traumatic brain injuries occur when there is a strong blow to the head or the body or when some object penetrates the brain tissue. These injuries are commonly caused by concussions, sporting events, car accidents, falls, or assaults and can range from mild to severe in terms of long-term complications for the brain. Moderate brain injury is defined as a brain injury that results in a loss of consciousness anywhere from 20 minutes to 6 hours, and severe brain injury is categorized by a loss of consciousness for greater than 6 hours.
What to expect for your child and your family following a traumatic brain injury will vary depending on the severity of the injuries sustained during the trauma.
What to expect after a traumatic brain injury in children and teens
Some of the factors that will determine the impacts of traumatic brain injuries include the severity of the initial injury, the rate of physiological recovery, the various brain functions affected, and the resources available to aid in recovery. Regardless of the type or severity of traumatic brain injury your child has experienced, it’s important to recognize that healing from this trauma will be a process. While the brain undergoes recovery in the days, weeks, and months following a traumatic brain injury, cognitive deficits may continue to develop months to years after the initial injury, particularly when the brain is asked to perform critical thinking tasks.
After a TBI occurs, medical professionals will assess the initial damage and determine whether your child can be released to recover at home or whether they will need an extended hospital stay to recover. If the injury is severe enough to warrant an extended hospital stay, doctors will closely monitor oxygen and blood flow to the brain to prevent blood clots and reduce the risk of seizures. Doctors may also perform surgery if they need to remove damaged brain tissue, repair fractures, or relieve pressure.
After the traumatic brain injury has stabilized, you can expect that your son will receive rehabilitation treatment in a variety of areas to help address the lingering impacts of the trauma. He may see specialists including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, and dietitians to help regain lost physical and cognitive functions. These specialists will also work with him to compensate for functions that cannot be recovered.
In between the periods of rehabilitation, you can also expect that your son will require a great deal of rest as rest promotes healing in the brain. If teens ignore their symptoms and try to tough it out, they will often experience worsening of symptoms which will delay the healing process. Only when his symptoms have significantly improved and with approval of his doctors, should he return to daily activities like school. Even then, you can expect this to be a gradual process, starting with half days of school followed by several hours of rest.
Throughout the recovery process, your son may experience many lingering side effects from his traumatic brain injury that can impact his physical, cognitive and emotional development.
Side effects that may occur from traumatic brain injuries
Teens will continue to feel the side effects of their brain injuries in the months and years to come after sustaining the trauma. From a physical standpoint, teens can experience problems with regulating body temperature, appetite changes, chronic pain, sleep disorders, seizures, loss of taste, smell, or hearing, and blurred visions or an intolerance of light. Beyond physical side effects, teens can also experience emotional and mental deficits that will affect their ability to function in daily life.
One major side effect teens will report experiencing following a traumatic brain injury is fatigue or mental exhaustion. This “neurofatigue” is a direct result of the injury and is not necessarily related to excessive activity or a lack of sleep. Neuofatigue can impact many areas of a teen’s life from school performance to relationships as it affects a teen’s ability to control emotional reactivity. Some teens can experience apathy in regards to emotional response while others can develop difficulty directing and controlling too much emotional energy.
Often one of the most difficult side effects for teens with brain injuries is the emotional distress they experience from social and emotional deficits. Teens are constantly working toward independence from their parents, and a huge part of this journey is social acceptance from peers. When teens sustain brain injuries, they often feel less confident, experience a decrease in friends, and have to withdraw from extracurricular activities. These losses can result in an increase of depressive and anxious symptoms.
Teens also work to achieve independence through higher education and employment opportunities, which can be more difficult to achieve for those who have sustained traumatic brain injuries. Cognitive deficit side effects related to brain injuries can include struggles with attention, concentration, memory, executing functioning, processing speed, speech and language, vision, and increased sensitivity to sounds. All of these side effects can impact a teen’s ability to gain employment or achieve the academic standards necessary to be accepted into a college. It’s important that teens learn how to advocate for the modifications and accommodations available to them both in the classroom and the workforce.
It’s also important to consider the emotional side effects that will occur to the entire family system. Traumatic brain injuries can create new and unfamiliar roles within the family even after the condition has stabilized. Parents may need to take additional time off work to take their teen to doctor’s appointments and rehab, and siblings may feel they are not getting the attention they deserve which can lead to feelings of guilt and resentment. This makes it especially important for parents to gauge their own emotional and mental health, so they can continue to support their family.
How parents can help their kids through traumatic brain injuries
If your child has experienced a traumatic brain injury, there are many strategies you can implement to help them along in their healing journey. For teens who have trouble focusing and paying attention within their school setting, work with your teen’s school and teachers in the following ways to help them succeed academically:
• Have him sit near the front of the classroom near the teacher to stay on track and receive additional support
• Minimize distractions outside of classroom activities
• Research the supports and accommodations your son is entitled to such as extra time when taking tests and scheduled breaks during class time
• Seek tutoring services if your child needs additional help outside of school
• Provide positive praise for small victories and progress
• Maintain constant communication with your son’s teachers so you know where progress has been made and where challenges still exist
Outside of the school environment, there are also many strategies you can implement at home to help your son deal with fatigue and emotional control. Here are some ways you can help prevent exhaustion, outbursts, and feelings of being overwhelming:
• Teach your teen to take rest breaks at regular intervals
• Create a schedule to help your teen prioritize tasks and establish a consistent structure
• Prep for social activities so he is not caught off guard during socialization
• Practice healthy coping mechanisms to manage emotions such as deep breathing, walking away, exercising, talking about feelings, and listening to music
• Allow for patience and time for your teen to process emotions and debrief after emotional experiences
If managing your teen’s recovery after a traumatic brain injury has become too much to handle on your own, therapeutic residential programs, like New Focus Academy, can help your son get the all-encompassing support that he needs. New Focus Academy specializes in helping teens who have experienced brain trauma by developing an individualized plan based on evidence-based techniques that help students utilize their strengths and address their challenges.
How New Focus Academy can support your teen
New Focus Academy is a therapeutic residential program with academic support for adolescent boys ages 12-18 who struggle with neurodevelopmental disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and emotional issues. Our mission is to use positive reinforcement to increase our students’ self esteem and independence.
Through decades of experience and proven methods, immersive experiential activities, and a small, close-knit community, our students have the time to grow emotionally and socially while learning and applying valuable life skills. We teach students methods to improve their functional living skills including self-care, homework, chores, and leisure planning. If your teen is struggling with the effects of a traumatic brain injury, call (435) 383-4369 for more information on how New Focus Academy can help.