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How to Talk to a Person With Brain Injury: Tips for Navigating Conversations After TBI

smiling woman talking to someone with brain injury in coffee shop

Persons living with brain injury face a variety of challenges. But for many survivors, one of the most frustrating things they deal with is a lack of understanding from family and friends.

Because brain injury is a hidden disability that most people misunderstand, TBI survivors often face well-meaning comments from strangers and even loved ones that sometimes only makes things worse.

To remedy this problem, today’s article will offer helpful tips on how to talk to a person with a brain injury. We’ll start with what not to say.

How Not to Talk to a Person with Brain Injury

man putting finger over mouth to be quiet

The most important thing to remember when talking to a person with a brain injury is that they are still people.

Even if they seem different from before their injury, even if they talk a little slower or have trouble following a conversation, they are still the same person.

One of the most frequent complaints TBI patients have is how differently people treat them after their accident. Too many people will talk to them as if they were fragile creatures and address them as if they were children.

Therefore, speak to them the way you did before their injury. If you are meeting them for the first time, then address them as you would any other person. You might need to adjust some things, but if they are an adult, treat them like an adult.

This is just some general advice on how to talk to a person with a brain injury. The following are a few examples of things you might accidentally say that are probably not helpful:

1. “Let me do that for you.”

As tempting as it is to want to help your loved one, doing everything for them can set back their recovery.

In addition, brain injury patients have already lost most of their independence, which can contribute to depression. Encouraging them to do some things on their own can increase their self-esteem and possibly speed up their recovery.

2. “You need to be more active.”

Apathy and lack of motivation are common side effects of brain injury. Therefore, even if your loved one seems like they are just being lazy, they really aren’t. They have just lost the ability to start an activity.

Staying active is crucial to promote a good recovery from brain injury. However, because their lack of motivation is a cognitive deficit, it won’t do any good to simply tell the person to get off the couch.

As an alternative, try to gently encourage them to practice their therapy exercises. Sometimes offering them a concrete reward in return can give them the external motivation they need to get started.

With practice, the person can regain the ability to begin activities on their own. Until then, stay patient.

3. “Don’t worry, I forget things all the time too.”

two men talking on beach

While you naturally will want to comfort your loved one when they experience memory loss, it is not usually helpful to draw a comparison to your own problems.

The differences between normal forgetfulness and memory problems after brain injury are night and day. Even with good intentions, comparing the two can come across as patronizing to the person with a brain injury.

Instead, try to say something like, “I can’t imagine what that must be like. Let’s see if we can come up with ways to help you remember more in the future.”

This can help you seem more understanding and less dismissive of their difficulties.

4. “You look fine, why aren’t you back to normal yet?”

Many people with brain injuries can look and seem normal, yet still deal with the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects of brain injury. That is why TBI is often known as an invisible disability.

In fact, most brain injury patients struggle to accept that their problems are valid because there is no physical proof of their injury. They might worry that their problems are “all in their head.”

Therefore, when talking to someone with brain injury, try not to make the person feel bad if they still struggle to remember things or if they talk or think a little slower. Instead, be as compassionate and patient as possible. That can often make all the difference in the world.

5. “You’re so brave!”

Once again, this compliment is often well-intentioned, but it can come across as demeaning to many people with brain injury.

Most TBI survivors would tell you they don’t feel brave for having a brain injury, and that most of the time they are in fact scared of what the future might hold.

Rather than giving them vague or generic praise, try complimenting them for something specific they have done. For example, you could say “I really admire the way you always try to cheer someone else up.”

This is more personal and helps them know you view them as an individual and not a stereotypical “TBI survivor.”

How to Talk to Someone With Brain Injury

woman talking to someone with a brain injury

Now that we’ve looked at some things you should not say to a person with brain injury, let’s discuss some positive things you can do.

The following are a few ways to ensure that you have a great conversation with people who struggle with the effects of brain injury:

  • Get their attention. Don’t start talking until you are sure that they hear you. Many TBI patients struggle with hearing loss, so if they are not looking directly at you, they likely will not realize you are speaking.
  • Make sure they are comfortable. If you want to have an extended conversation, make sure they are sitting down so they can pay attention without spending too much energy. Also, ask them where they prefer you to sit. Some don’t mind if you are close enough to touch, but some do. Respect their boundaries.
  • Stay on one topic at a time. A brain injury can make it more difficult to follow conversations. Therefore it’s best not to jump back and forth between topics. If you want to change the subject, let them know beforehand so they have time to prepare.
  • Give them time to respond. It can take a person with brain injury longer to respond or find their point than it does for other people. Be patient and avoid putting words into their mouth.
  • Include them. TBI survivors are often hesitant to add to a conversation on their own. Take the initiative. If there is a group conversation happening, invite them to join in.

These are just a few ways to help you make talking to someone with brain injury a success.

Talking to People With Brain Injury: Conclusion

Talking to someone with a brain injury can feel intimidating at first. You may be worried about what to say or about accidentally offending them.

While there are a few things you should try to avoid saying, for the most part, talking to someone with a brain injury is the same as talking to any other person.

Just be respectful and treat them as an individual with their own point of view and feelings. If you can do that, having meaningful conversations will become much easier again.

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