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Changes in mood and emotion after an ABI fact sheet

Changes in mood and emotion in students with an acquired brain injury

How do I know if my student is having difficulties with changes in their mood and emotions?

Brain injuries can have a significant impact on all areas of a young person’s function. Understandably, students may experience a broad range of emotions after their injury including, challenges adjusting to changes in their appearance and meaningful roles/ activities, grief and loss in regard to changes in their skills, abilities, and friendships, frustration in response to activity restrictions or difficulties on tasks that were once easy, or changes in self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-identify after an injury. In addition, brain injuries often effect how well a young person can manage their feelings post-injury, with students often experiencing feelings more intensely and more quickly (e.g., may become upset over a relatively minor problem). Students may also seem emotionally labile, moving quickly between different emotional states. Unfortunately, mood and emotional changes post-injury can have a significant impact on a young person’s academic achievement, social engagement, and emotional-behavioural wellbeing.

What can I do to help my student overcome difficulties with the changes in their mood and emotions?

  • Work with the student to set realistic and meaningful learning goals. Where possible, these goals should be 80% achievable to allow the student to develop a sense of mastery and competence over a task.
  • Be alert for tasks that the student might find distressing and respond immediately with positive reinforcement when you see the student attempting the task.
  • Focus on a young person’s effort not their success in completing a task.
  • Where possible, compare a young person’s performance to their own previous performance on a task (try to avoid comparisons to pre-injury performance, or performance of their peers).
  • Should the student express doubt in their abilities (e.g., “I’m bad at reading”), it will be important to acknowledge and reflect back the student’s feelings (e.g., “I understand that you are finding this book hard to read”) and work with them to find out what they are concerned about (e.g., is the book to complex, are they struggling to remember what they have read) so that you are in a better position to address their concerns.
  • Help the student to re-interpret or reframe social situations that they may have misread or critical self-statements. For instance, if the student states “she is always mean to me”, then it might be helpful reviewing the social situation and discussing ways to reframe the statement (e.g., “it sounds like she was she thought it was funny when you dropped the ball, but she was nice to you for the rest of the game”).
  • Ensure the student has plenty of non-anxiety provoking school based tasks that they can experience a sense of competency and mastery over.
  • Avoid singling the student out from their peers when implementing strategies to support the student.
  • Ensure that the student continues to have meaningful roles that they can fulfil in class (such as helping another student, running errands, or assisting the coach in sport).
  • Ensure that the student has plenty of fun and engaging activities that they can engage in during lunchtimes with peers, particularly while the student’s activities are restricted for medical reasons.
  • Engage the student with the school’s counsellor or guidance officer should you have concerns about their emotional wellbeing.
  • Work with other therapists (such as private psychologists) to help implement and develop strategies to support your student’s emotional well-being at school. This might include, helping the student to recognise their feelings and assisting them in using their strategies to manage their feelings.

Contact us

Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service
Queensland Children’s Hospital
Level 6, 501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 2950
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
f: 07 3068 3909

In an emergency, always call 000.

If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Developed by the Queensland Paediatric Rehabilitation Service, Children’s Health Queensland. Updated: October 2017. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.