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Heads Up! Protect Your Child’s Brain from Sports-Related Concussions

While watching the 2008 Olympics, Laura Leigh Vetters, then six, tried out her gymnastics skills by diving from a coffee table into an armchair. Mom Nancy Vetters says, “The chair was padded, but I guess it was a hard landing. She cried and cried.” When Laura Leigh’s legs began shaking and she complained of a tummy ache, Nancy knew it was more serious, so she took her to the hospital. “There was lots of throwing up there, and the doctor did some X-rays and other tests.” A CAT-Scan showed no risk of bleeding in her brain, Nancy says, and the doctor sent her home with orders to keep Laura Leigh quiet for a few days to help her brain heal from the concussion.

Nancy Vetters took the approach recommended by physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics when a concussion is suspected: Get your child to a doctor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates between 1.6 million and 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur every year. Many of these brain injuries go unreported.

“Overall, children between five and 18 years old account for 65 per cent of emergency department visits for sports and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, with the highest rates in the 10- to 14-year-old age group,” says Kimberly Gran, M.D. Gran says studies show high school and college football players make up 5 per cent of sports-related concussions. However, she says, that number is likely a low estimate since young athletes tend to keep quiet about injuries.

To help parents of young athletes, this guide will show you how to protect your child; how to teach them the importance of reporting injuries; how to recognize the signs of a concussion and how to treat this brain injury.

Dazed and confused – Just what is a concussion? For one thing, you don’t have to be knocked out to sustain a concussion, which is defined by the AAP as “a brain injury that affects the normal brain activities, such as thinking, memory, problem-solving, vision, balance and many others.” We’re not talking about just a headache or dizziness. We’re talking about an injury to your brain. And it should always be taken seriously.

Gear up to keep injuries down – “The best protection is good coaching and using proper technique,” says Joseph D. Ackerson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist. “For example, in football, the helmet is designed for protection and should never be used as a weapon.”

In addition to using proper techniques, Dr. Gran stresses the need for the correct gear. “Always have them wear properly-fitting equipment for their sport.” Please, please tell me now – It’s important that your child tell their coach or a trainer or you immediately if they don’t “feel right” after being hit in the head, face or neck.

Dr. Ackerson suggests talking to your kids to explain the difference in soreness and pain. “Soreness is to be expected from physical exertion and contact,” he says. “Pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong.”

“I also recommend teaching them that you do not ‘play through’ neurological pain because it only makes it worse. Many times the phrase ‘It is better to miss one game than the whole season’ can drive home the message.”

“Make sure your child knows that concussions are serious. Spend time as a family talking about concussions and encourage them to let someone know when they are hurting,” adds Dr. Gran.

Follow the signs – If you know what to look for, you’ll be better able to assess the situation - even when your athlete doesn’t tell you they are hurt.

The CDC’s publication Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports and both doctors list the following symptoms and signs that your child might have sustained a concussion: 

- Appears dazed or stunned

- Is confused about assignment or position

- Is unsure of game, score or opponent

- Moves clumsily

- Answers questions slowly

- Loses consciousness (even briefly)

- Shows behavior or personality changes

- Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall

- Can’t recall events after hit or fall

Athletes often report these symptoms:

- Headache or “pressure” in the head

- Nausea or vomiting

- Balance problems or dizziness

- Double or blurry vision

- Sensitivity to light or noise

- Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy or groggy

- Concentration or memory problems

- Confusion

- Does not “feel right”

When in doubt, take them out – If your player has been injured and you recognize any of these signs, sit them down immediately. “An athlete with a suspected concussion should never return to the game,” says Dr. Gran. “Taking your child out of the game may make you briefly unpopular, but it is vital to protect your child’s health.”

Next, take your child to see a doctor as soon as possible. “Do not let anyone minimize the need for your child to see a doctor,” says Dr. Ackerson. If a concussion is diagnosed, kids should refrain from physical activity, such as sports and other exertion. According to the AAP, mental rest is also important: Keep your child away from loud activities, video games, bright sunlight, driving, alcohol, drugs and standardized tests at school. (I can hear the kids rejoicing over that last one!)

Only your child’s physician can determine when they are ready to play again. “While we work closely with coaches to help them learn to identify when concussions might occur,” Dr. Ackerson says, “coaches should not be involved in the decision about when an athlete is ready to return to play.”

Long-term trouble – If you have trouble convincing your child that concussions are serious, tell them about the NFL’s strict rules on when professionals can return to the field. When a player is taken out of practice or a game after a concussion, he cannot return to the field until he has no symptoms, both at rest and after physical activity, until he has a normal neurological exam and testing, and has been cleared by team doctors and an independent neurological consultant. The pros are encouraged to be truthful and fully report any signs or symptoms of a concussion.

Dr. Ackerson also says, “Repeated concussions over time with persistent to slow-to-resolve symptoms do appear to increase the risk for learning and memory problems, depression, behavioral difficulties and possibly increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s. More commonly, you may see that once you have had one or two significant concussions, it takes less force to cause subsequent injuries.”

To keep your kid safe on the field, follow these rules: Wear the right equipment; teach them to report any injuries; know the signs of a concussion and when in doubt, take them out.

“Parents should reassure themselves and their children that if they are smart and take the proper steps, most concussions are going to clear over time,” adds Ackerson.

Tiffani is an award-winning journalist who writes about parenting, pop culture and girl power. Tiffani has been published in Parenting, Volta Voices, Healthy Children, visitsouth.com and parenting publications across North America. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or learn more at www.tiffanihillpatterson.com.

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