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How to talk to children about your stroke or brain injury

Stroke survivor and GripAble ambassador Kate Allatt shares her insight and personal experience

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A parental stroke or brain injury can be a traumatic event for most young children and access to the right information and support is vital to help them cope. 

Having open and honest conversations about stroke, brain injury and loss is the first step, followed by signposting and guiding children towards healthy ways to manage their emotions. 

Stroke survivor and GripAble ambassador Kate Allatt draws on her personal experience of parenting young children whilst recovering from her stroke, and offers helpful advice and tips for talking to your children about your stroke or brain injury

 

Effects of parental stroke or brain injury on children 

When I experienced my stroke, my children were at the tender ages of four, eight and ten and the event inevitably had a devastating impact on all of them in very different ways.

We know that a child’s brain is the most under-developed organ in their body. As such, any serious trauma, such as the sudden illness of a parent or close relative, can cause physical changes to the structure of a child’s developing brain. 

In my family’s case, I believe my stroke challenged my children’s ability to process emotion and, in truth, there were profound consequences to my maternal relationship with them. This has been by far the hardest consequence of my stroke that I’ve had to deal with. 

Some children may choose to push away the pain and confusion they feel by shutting their parent out and limiting communication with them. Some may adopt unhealthy lifestyle choices or experience severe anxiety as a result of the event. Others may find it hard to form loving relationships themselves. 

More understanding and support are urgently needed to equip the children of stroke and brain injury survivors with the tools they need to cope with their trauma and help preserve parent and child relationships. 

There is information out there for parents of children who have experienced a stroke or brain injury, but support for young children after a parental stroke is limited and often sadly overlooked.  

 

Talking to children about stroke

I know I’m not alone in struggling to cope with the aftershocks of my stroke as a parent. It is extremely challenging having to manage your own emotions, physical symptoms, and changes in your mental state on top of considering the feelings of those close to you, particularly children who may not be able to fully understand the changes in you and why things can’t continue as normal now you are home from hospital.  

Here are some tips for approaching the topic of your stroke or brain injury with your children: 

  • Remain calm – this can be particularly challenging after a stroke or head injury, but it is important to keep your cool and reassure your child, as children naturally seek support from adults when traumatic events have occurred 
  • Pick a good time – aim to look for natural openings to have a discussion rather than sitting down for a formal conversation to help your child feel more at ease. Encourage family discussions that allow family members to share their emotions to show children it is ok to express their feelings about your stroke too
  • Acknowledge their emotions – if a child admits to a worry or a concern, try not to dismiss it as it may come across as criticism. It is often enough to simply confirm what you are hearing and show you are listening and accept their feelings. Let your child know it is completely normal to experience anger, guilt and sadness and to express these in different ways
  • Understand that children cope in different ways – there is no one ‘right’ way to cope with a major life event such as parental stroke or brain injury – some children may want to spend more time alone, others may turn to friends and relatives for support
  • Look out for signs of trauma – children may not show their true emotions in the first few months following an event, but once the initial shock wears off, symptoms of anxiety and worry may begin to show
  • Know when to seek professional help – if you are concerned about any of the behaviours your child is displaying, it is important to seek help from your GP or mental health professional as soon as possible 
  • Look after yourself – remember you are recovering from a serious condition and need time and support to help you get better. Discuss any concerns with friends and relatives and, if possible, lean on them for support and help at home.

For further advice and resources, visit the Child Mind Institute website here and access the brand new resource, ‘Better Conversations with Brain Injury – For Kids’ by signing up to the Better Conversations with Aphasia website here. 

Read more advice from Kate on how to discuss stroke with loved ones, visit here

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