Siblings and Peers

Preparing Children for Change

When a family member endures a traumatic brain injury, siblings and their peers from school, sports, and social activities will need compassion and guidance in understanding the changes inherent in life post injury. Sibling dynamics can shift because of changes that are redefining their lives. Below are suggestions for discussing and dealing with brain injury and its influence on siblings.

Describing the Injury, Visiting the Hospital

Explain exactly what happened to the sibling/peer in language they can understand. “Your (brother, sister, friend) was in an accident. He/She was hurt and taken to the hospital so the doctors could help.” It may help to drive by the hospital so they know where their sibling or peer is. At the hospital, be sure to discuss what they are going to see before making the visit. Encourage their questions before, during, and after the visit. During a visit, don’t force a family member to participate and watch for signs that they may be getting overwhelmed. They may need to leave quickly and seek comfort from someone close to them.

Explain words like “coma” and “traumatic brain injury.” Medical terms are frightening to children and often do not make any sense. Tell them that “coma” is when you are unconscious because your brain has been hurt. Explain to them that people wake up from a coma slowly over days and weeks. In addition, tell them your brain helps you to do three things: think, move, and feel. When you have a brain injury, you may have problems with your thinking, ability to move, and the way you act. When the brain is injured, it takes a long time to heal and, while some problems get better, some may stay with us forever. But there are ways to help people work around the difficulties.

Communicating About Brain Injury

Allow the sibling or peer the opportunity to communicate. Some children need to talk, some need to keep diaries, some need to ask of questions. The more opportunities we create to help children express their feelings, fears, and needs, the better they will understand. Trying to “protect” children by isolating them or not answering questions only increases anxiety and misunderstanding. Schools can also provide support services to help the sibling or peer.

Integrating Siblings and Peers into Life Post-Injury

Give siblings time alone with you to ask questions, express feelings and prepare them for changes, especially if they will care for their injured brother or sister. Siblings may be asked to take on new responsibilities, which they may resent. These requests can be balanced by rewards to demonstrate that their help is appreciated.

It is very common for other children in the family to feel angry. Many times, siblings hold these feelings inside. They may focus instead on specifics such as how much time is spent at the hospital, how much money has been spent, how tired their parents are, or the cancellation of plans or activities. While siblings may feel angry at their brother or sister with TBI, the anger may really be about how the accident has disrupted their family.

Siblings may also have awkward experiences with their peers. Other children will be naturally curious about what has happened. They may ask questions that siblings are not prepared to answer. Unfortunately, many parents report that friends ultimately abandon a disabled person, particularly in cases of serious injury. This may place additional pressures on siblings to fill the gap. As a result, they may feel torn between wanting to be with their own friends and spending time with their brother or sister. This loyalty can shift to resentment unless some balance is established.