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Helping Your Teen Recover from a Concussion

Mary Holmgren unexpectedly learned how tough it is for a teen to recover from a concussion. After a headbutt during a wrestling match injured her son Kyle, the high schooler suffered headaches and forgetfulness for weeks. It took a bit of pressure for him to cooperate in his healing.

Like Kyle, every teen likes to believe they are tough, resilient and incapable of being sidelined. But when it comes to concussions, unfortunately, the opposite is true. Researchers at the University of Montreal found teens suffered longer and more substantially from the effects of a concussion than either adults or children.
Combine typical teenaged irrepressibility and demanding schedules with an injured brain and parents can find themselves fighting an uphill battle toward their child’s recovery, especially since teens can take two to three times as long to recover from a concussion than adults.

Here are some tips for paving a smoother road - for you and your teen:

Create a healing environment

Studies show that cognitive rest (limiting mental stimulation through ceasing activities such as use of media, reading, socializing, loud noise and bright lights) helps speed concussion recovery. However, unlike other injuries, such as broken bones or sprained joints where casts and braces can aid immobilization, keeping the brain inactive presents a unique challenge - particularly for teens. Cognitive rest happens to be the antithesis of normal teen life. Which is why providing a distraction-free space for your teen to heal is crucial. A bedroom conducive to rest, with darkening blinds, low to no music, and no computers, TVs or other screened devices is ideal.

Teens can forget they are not supposed to be reading or using devices that normally serve an integral part of their everyday life. Holmgren found the best way to help her son rest was to remove temptation, such as his cell phone and other electronics.

“It was hard,” she says. “I had to take stuff off of him. His friends were calling and messaging.”

Sometimes instead of removing distractions from your teen’s environment, it can be easier to remove the teen from the distractions. Spending a few days with a relative where your teen can escape from everyday pressures offers a great solution for providing a healing environment.

Be firm, but get buy-in

“If we listened to him, it would have been a much longer process,” says Holmgren of her son’s attitude toward the restrictions placed on him for recovery. “I kept saying, ‘It’s for your own good.’ ”At the same time, Dr. Brian Babka, sports medicine specialist with Cadence Health, notes it is up to the teen to decide to cooperate in their own healing.

“We talk to the kid, not the parent. She has to take accountability for it,” says Dr. Babka. He urges parents to get their kid’s buy-in and understanding of what recovery requires.

He also notes a desire to see their teen recover can lead parents to sometimes lean too hard on their child to follow doctor’s orders, with the risk of causing anxiety and panic in teens. “Offer gentle reminders,” he suggests. “But don’t hover. It’s a fine line.”

Seek support

Being left alone in a dark, quiet room with nothing to do for long is not only boring, it can also heighten the risk of depression - a potential side effect in any concussion. Add an active teen to the mix and you have a recipe for melancholy, which makes it important to balance physical and emotional needs in your recovery plans for your teen.

Babka encourages parents to include their teen’s friends in the recovery process. “Kids need to feel social,” he says.

Holmgren’s son’s network of friends impressed her with how they supported him during his concussion. “They would check in to see how he was doing,” she says. “They’re a tight group.”

Follow the doctor’s instructions for cognitive rest. But ask if it is okay for a friend to stop in for a short visit on occasion. See if your teen can emerge from recovery for a subdued dinner. Offer to read aloud to your teen for brief periods of time. Support is also important as your teen returns to school. They will likely be glad for the return to ‘normalcy,’ but should ease back into their coursework. Ask your doctor for a return-to-school plan to be given to teachers and administrators. Given the internal nature of the injury, your teen will look healthy, even though they are not. This makes it essential to communicate with your teen’s school, coaches and other extracurricular leaders.

As Babka says, “There are no visual cues that they are still hurt. It gets old quickly when people keep asking you if you are okay yet.”

Now that he understands what it takes to get over a concussion, Kyle approaches his sport with a bit more caution, while still working hard. His mom is grateful.
If you face the challenge of helping a teen recover from a concussion, take comfort in knowing symptoms won’t last forever, that often your teen’s resistance is due to the injury itself and that others have been in your shoes. Follow these tips. And while you’re at it, do as you’re encouraging your teen to do: rest.

Lara is a parenting journalist who has helped her teen navigate the long road to health after a concussion.

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