How to support kids with a suddenly injured parent?
September 16, 2019 6:21 AM   Subscribe

A good friend of mine co-parents two elementary age children with the other parent. Until recently, they shared custody evenly and live blocks apart, so the children spent regular time with both parents at two homes. Sadly, the other parent got into an accident that left them with some very serious head injuries. How should my friend support their kids?

After a few weeks, the injured parent has now "recovered" to the point of being conscious and is expected to survive, but lots of complications and issues; amnesia, aphasia, etc, still hospitalized and will be for a good while. Of course with TBIs you don't know what will come back... but the reality is that this parent will not be back to fully able anytime soon, and honestly, probably not ever. The kids haven't yet seen the injured parent, and its likely to be another few weeks / month before they can.  

I know there is a good amount of stuff out there about kids who lose a parent and helping them with their grief - but what about kids who suddenly have a parent who is dealing with traumatic injuries, and will likely appear differently and act differently toward the children, and may or may not ever be a custodial parent again? How to support kids who were living in two homes now under full custody of their able parent, but very much missing and worrying about their other parent? Do you know any good resources out there to help navigate this new reality?
posted by RajahKing to Human Relations (11 answers total)
"Elementary age" covers a lot of ground as far as resilience, agency and emotional capacity are concerned. How mature are these kids?
posted by mhoye at 6:33 AM on September 16, 2019

They are in early grades, between 5 and 7 years old. If you mean how mature on a scale, they seem about as mature as you'd expect 5 to 7 year olds would be.
posted by RajahKing at 6:35 AM on September 16, 2019

You: you can be the "fun aunt/uncle" that takes the children, together or individually, to the park or zoo or movies or whatever. Sub in as a friend and confidant for them. Give your adult friend some breathing space to relearn how to parent 24/7 with the knowledge that you have their back.
Don't make a promise you can't keep. Don't keep secrets from the parents. Be there for moral support, since you are the "Big Sibling" who will not bring issues up a dozen years in the future over Thanksgiving dinner. If you are there for the kids, be all in so that they can count on you not fading out or moving away. They are already dealing with the loss of a parent in some respects.

Your friend: get a lawyer involved to find out about changes in custody before issues come to a head. What may be better for the injured co-parent may not be acceptable in their eyes for their relationship with the children. They don't want to look like they are taking advantage of the situation, but now is the time to set limits when it comes to future plans (rehabilitation, changing employment, seeking help from the injured person's family members) and how it effects the children.
This could include the injured person moving further away than "a few blocks."
At these ages (five and seven) a stable home environment is a major component in keeping custody.
I don't want to sound alarmist, but your friend needs to get ahead of this, just in case.
posted by TrishaU at 7:33 AM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

There probably are a few decent books out there targeted at kids with ill parents (though they're probably cancer-leaning), but I think one important avenue to explore while the injured parent is still in the hospital is to talk to the care team and the hospital about whether they have staff social workers the family can work with on this.

This is absolutely a case for a professional to hand-hold and coach through this process, all the better if that professional has access to the care team. The now full-time parent definitely deserves professional support in navigating this in a healthy and trauma-managing way for the kids, so if the hospital doesn't have resources maybe you can help them find a therapist, social worker, or some other kind of specialist to get looped in for now. (The parent should also contact the kids' pediatrician to a) let them know what's up b) ask for referrals.)
posted by Lyn Never at 7:49 AM on September 16, 2019

The hospital where the injured parent is at might have a child life specialist. This person would be trained specifically in helping children deal with illness and trauma. Would totally recommend asking the hospital for support. seconding what Lyn Never says.
posted by MadMadam at 7:58 AM on September 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

Your friend might consider referencing materials created to help the families of returning veterans. TBIs are a huge issue among this group and I know there have been some "family guides" made. Similarly, materials related to understanding a parent who has PTSD could fit in some ways (especially messages about changes in personality not being the parent's OR the child's fault, etc). Try poking around for some of these resources.
posted by Bebo at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

I would like to second professional, ongoing support. I was quite a bit older when my father had his first TBI (16) and he made a very good recovery, but the personality changes and emotional ups and downs were difficult to handle even at that age. It's well worth seeing what the hospital has to offer. It's also worth looking for brain injury support groups in your friend's area.

So sorry everyone is going through this.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:35 AM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

The kids need some reference points, and the parent should be working through the hospital social worker. The recovering parent really Really REALLY wants a full restoration to being there for the kids and the rest of what has been put on hold or stopped by this injury. They will live. The kids might make an audio recording, maybe sing something simple to the tune of Happy Birthday that the parent can listen to. Mention if the kids’ photos are in the hospital rooms.

The parent with the kids can reach out to the children’s librarian to seek out a stack of books on tough family medical situations and screen for what is good to bring home or purchase.
posted by childofTethys at 8:46 AM on September 16, 2019

Best thing anyone did for me when my husband was in the hospital was pool some money and buy me some gift cards for grocery and restaurant delivery. It was the dead of winter and I had a newborn and a husband in the ICU. Somehow the thought of having to carry home milk on the bus on top of all that was just too much. Everything else, I could deal with, but those giant jugs of milk were just too much.
posted by ficbot at 8:53 AM on September 16, 2019 [6 favorites]

There should be a hospital social worker. A good children's/reference librarian should be able to help. I would take the kids for very short visits, explaining that's Dad's brain has been badly hurt, and he may not know them and may not seem like himself. I'd help the Mom get legal help to temporarily change the custody schedule.

If he is badly injured, this is going to play out over a while, Mom and kids will need ongoing help. The kids would benefit from therapy, possibly school social worker, to help process. Thanks for being a good friend.
posted by theora55 at 10:12 AM on September 16, 2019

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the topic or kids’ developmental ages to know how appropriate these are, but saw them linked to the other day, so in case they’re some small help - Sesame Street has a series of videos (I think originally designed for the kids of servicemen & women) designed to help explain injuries, including one or two on brain injury - the full set is here.
posted by penguin pie at 11:44 AM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

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