It’s the Brain Injury Talking



Lazy, manipulative, attention-seeking! Have you heard people using those, or similar terms when describing the behavior of someone living with brain injury. Not very helpful is it?

It kind of suggests a deliberate tone to the behavior. Maybe at times you have thought what you are seeing is personally directed at you.  I will tell you upfront I get a bit steamed up on this topic. So I really want to talk about this and try and give you some alternative strategies.

At some point we all have moments where we think whatever is happening, is personal – it’s designed to get at me. Think about the impact this has.

Taking behaviours as intentional and personal, seeing behavior as deliberate, believing a person with brain injury is personally getting at you, it can be exhausting for you. It is not helpful for you, (the supporter),it is not helpful for the person with brain injury, and it is not at all beneficial to progress. It tends to get in the way of being professional and helpful when managing behaviours. And those behaviours can potentially escalate as you become defensive, and unable to think objectively about the situation.

A useful message when responding to any behavior you come across is to tell yourself “It’s the brain injury talking.” It is not deliberate. It is not personal. This will help you to respond more effectively and remind you not take it personally.

Think about your response in a more constructive way – think about what part of the brain might be damaged, to cause the behaviour or action you experience.  This will better assist you in researching and implementing potential strategiesalongside the person and their family.

Think about strategies that might help compensate or overcome damage caused by brain injury , rather than blaming the person and taking it personally. This is much more likely to help manage, or change the behaviour.

Let’s take a very common example “Mary is just lazy, she could do more for herself if she really wanted to?” Think about what you know about the function of the brain and what happens when it is damaged. What potential causes can you think of for a person with brain injury appearing lazy?

  • Damage causing loss of motivation and / or initiation
  • Depression – common after brain injury
  • Memory loss – often mistaken for laziness when memory is patchy or people remember some things, and not others. Or when a specific area of memory is damaged such as procedural memory (the way we do things) but other parts of memory are intact.
  • Cognitive fatigue

None of these are deliberate, and all very possible causes of behaviour.

The most effective strategies will depend on the cause, so it is an important first step to understand why this might be happening. Talk with the person, their family, professionals involved for information and assistance to work out the best approach.

A list of tips I have used for years, is one drawn up by family members giving tips for managing challenging behavior. Amongst the great points was one that said “Take a scientific approach to behaviour.” For a long time this seemed an odd, impersonal suggestion. Seeing someone more as a science project than a person.

Recently I realized what  was actually being said  in this tip was,  to treat the behaviour as something to examine, break down, and work out strategies for, rather than taking it personally.

It was another more elegant way of saying “Don’t take it personally” and helpfully it includes as part of the rule, a strategy: a scientific approach.

A dictionary definition of ‘scientific approach’ gives us further clues: “a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data gathered, a hypothesis is formulated … and tested”. Great idea for a strategy– break it down into simple terms as follows:

A Scientific Approach in a Nutshell:

  • Determine what the behavior looks like?
  • Decide what is the desired behavior?
  • Gather up all the information to understand fully.
  • Decide on a strategy.
  • Try it out.
  • Review and adjust as necessary.

Yes I know it’s a bit more complex than that, but I really wanted to show the difference between taking it personally and getting all tied up with that; or stepping back and taking a ‘scientific approach’.

I hear you saying – “Yes but sometimes the behaviour is more about the person’s personality than the brain injury.” Oh and the common statement I hear added is “…and we can’t let them get away with it!” Hmmmm, well my response to that is – what is easier to work with

–          looking at how you might set up strategies to manage the behaviour as part of the brain injury,

–          or continue to think it’s a trait that is deliberate and unchangeable – and designed to get under your skin!

What Can You Do:

  1. Understand more about the brain, and its function to give you clues as to what is happening and why.
  2. Learn as much as you can about the person, their brain injury and the outcome.
  3. Work HARD on not taking things personally – develop a thick skin!
  4. Take a scientific approach to behavior.


Any thoughts or helpful tips to add?


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