How to Care for a Loved One with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

If you found this article, it is likely that you have a loved one who has recently suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). While the road ahead may be long and difficult, know that you are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from TBIs every year, and many survivors are able to live relatively normal lives with the help of family and friends. In this article, we will provide some tips for how to communicate, manage moods, and care for a loved one with a TBI.


What is a TBI?

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a type of damage to the brain that can occur after a head injury. TBI can lead to a wide range of cognitive, physical, and emotional problems. Symptoms may appear immediately or gradually over time.


Recovery from a TBI depends on the severity of the injury and the individual's age and health. In some cases, people with TBI experience lifelong challenges. Falls are the leading cause of TBI, followed by firearm-related injuries, motor vehicle accidents, and assault. (CDC)


The most common symptoms of traumatic brain injury include:

  • Deficits in attention & short-term memory

  • Decreased level of consciousness

  • Slowed thinking

  • Skull fracture

  • Difficulties in frustration tolerance

  • Amnesia

  • Problems with time management & decision making

  • Neuropsychologic abnormalities

(Source: TBI OC)


How to Communicate with Your Loved One

One of the most challenging things about caring for a loved one with a TBI is communicating with them. TBIs often lead to changes in mood, cognition, and behavior, which can make conversations difficult – it can be hard to know exactly what to say. It is important to be patient, understanding, and clear when communicating with your loved one, though that may feel easier said than done.


To make it simpler, just remember to follow their lead.


If they want to talk about their injury, then listen attentively; if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t force the issue. Remember that your loved one might not be able to express themselves as eloquently as they could before their injury, so don’t get frustrated if they have trouble finding the right words. When listening, try to give them the space to find the words on their own without jumping in, as that can unintentionally make them feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or belittled.


Tips for Dealing with Mood Changes

TBIs can also lead to mood swings and longer-term changes in mood or emotional state. One minute your loved one might be happy and upbeat, and the next minute they might be angry or sad. These changes can be frustrating for both you and your loved one, but there are some things you can do to help manage them.

  • Maintain a routine for your loved one – this could include regular mealtimes, scheduled activities, and so forth. Having a predictable routine will help minimize confusion and anxiety.

  • Give your loved one space when they need it – sometimes they just need time alone, away from stressors, and in a quiet place to process their emotions.

  • Give yourself space when you need it. If you fear you may react out of emotion or anger, separate yourself from the situation until you feel more level-headed.

  • Try to find activities that your loved one enjoys and that help them relax – this could be listening to music, spending time outdoors, or anything else that brings them joy.

  • Don’t take it personally. Remember that the injury may be the source of the mood swing, it’s no one’s fault (including yours). Try to separate your feelings from the situation.

(Source: Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center)


Helping Your Loved One Return to Their Normal Life

The goal for many people with TBIs is to eventually return to their “normal” life as much as possible. This may mean returning to work or school, participating in leisure activities, or socializing with friends and family. Depending on the severity of their injury, some people may be able to return to their pre-injury life relatively quickly; others may need more time – there is no “right” answer here.


Any return to old routines and habits will need to be gradual and individualized so that your loved one doesn’t get overwhelmed. Helping your loved one reintegrate into society can be challenging, but there are many resources available – from online support groups to in-person counseling – so don’t hesitate to ask questions or reach out for help when you need it.


For a local Orange County resource, check out the St. Jude Brain Injury Network. The St. Jude Brain Injury Network (SJBIN) is an invaluable resource that helps traumatic brain injury survivors gain access to gainful employment, find appropriate community reintegration programs, secure accessible housing, and access research-related education.


Tips for Family Caregivers Caring for a Loved One with a TBI

  1. First and foremost, take care of yourself. It's important to stay healthy and rested, so you can be at your best for your loved one. Make sure to schedule time for yourself every day, even if it's just a few minutes to take a break.

  2. Be patient and understanding. TBI can cause changes in mood, behavior, and cognitive abilities. It's important to be patient and understand that these changes are out of your loved one's control.

  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Talk to your loved one about their injury, how they're feeling, and what their goals are for treatment. This open communication will help you both better understand and cope with the changes resulting from the TBI.

  4. Create a support network. Find other family members or friends who can offer emotional support, practical help, or both. It can also be helpful to join a support group for caregivers of loved ones with TBI.

  5. Seek professional help when needed. If you're finding it difficult to cope with your caregiving role, don't hesitate to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor specializing in TBI caregiving.

Closing Thoughts

Caring for a person with a TBI can be emotionally and practically difficult. However, by being patient and understanding, maintaining a routine, and providing support, you can help make the recovery process easier for both you and your loved one.


For a local Orange County resource, check out the St. Jude Brain Injury Network. The St. Jude Brain Injury Network (SJBIN) is an invaluable resource that helps traumatic brain injury survivors gain access to gainful employment, find appropriate community reintegration programs, secure accessible housing, and access research-related education.