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Aggression and TBI and gender – does the mix matter?

Posted Mar 29 2011 10:31am

This is another segment about Then And Now – Managing TBI Issues Over the Long Term – in particular, about Aggression.

Thinking about aggression and TBI, I got to wondering about whether the impact of aggression might make a difference, depending whether a survivor is man or a woman, a boy or a girl. I did some googling, but I ran out of steam trying to sort through all the different pieces of information.

Apparently, research points to women having worse long-term outcomes than men. Interesting. And unfortunate. There are a number of different possible explanations, which I found  at http://www.dawncanada.net/ppt/Women%20and%20Brain%20Injury.ppt (Good presentation! Very informative. I’ll have to examine it more closely when I have more time…) Some of them are that perhaps the medication prescribed interacts differently with women’s chemistry than men’s. Or women report more issues, and therefore appear “sicker” than men. Or perhaps it’s because of psychosocial factors. That is to say, women tend to be more verbally “fluent” than men, so they present as being much better off than they are cognitively. They seem fine, but they may be struggling in ways that only an objective test can pick up — but nobody thinks to administer a test, because “she seems fine”.

Conundrum.

Anyway, in thinking about TBI-related aggression, I got to thinking about different scenarios where a man exhibiting aggression would fare better than a woman exhibiting the same behavior. Aggression in men is often tolerated much better than aggression in women. With men, aggression is often expected, where with women, there’s a completely different standard that they’re expected to follow.

Say you’re standing in line at the post office during the holidays. Everyone has been standing in line for 45 minutes, holding heavy packages and wishing they were somewhere else… when in comes a guy who’s frazzled and obviously in a big hurry. He goes to the back of the line for a little bit, but after a few minutes he starts to fidget and curse under his breath. He then proceeds to jump the line and push his way into second place. The guy standing behind him gets bent out of shape and pushes him out of line, the two of them trade words, then start pounding on each other. The police are called, and the two men are hauled out of the post office and given a talking to by a couple of officers. They won’t let it go, though, and they still keep trying to punch each other in the face, so they’re separated in two separate police cruisers and driven off to jail.

Now imagine the scenario with an aggressive woman:

Say you’re standing in line at the post office during the holidays. Everyone has been standing in line for 45 minutes, holding heavy packages and wishing they were somewhere else… when in comes a woman who’s frazzled and obviously in a big hurry. She goes to the back of the line for a little bit, but after a few minutes she starts to fidget and curse under her breath. She then proceeds to jump the line and push her way into second place. The guy standing behind her gets bent out of shape and pushes her out of line, the two of them trade words, then start pounding on each other. The police are called, and the two of them are hauled out of the post office and given a talking to by a couple of officers. They won’t let it go, though, and they still keep trying to punch each other in the face, so they’re separated in two separate police cruisers and driven off to jail.

Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? How about a woman who’s just defending her own turf:

Say you’re standing in line at the post office during the holidays. Everyone has been standing in line for 45 minutes, holding heavy packages and wishing they were somewhere else… when in comes a guy who’s frazzled and obviously in a big hurry. He goes to the back of the line for a little bit, but after a few minutes he starts to fidget and curse under his breath. He then proceeds to jump the line and push his way into second place. The woman standing behind him gets bent out of shape and pushes him out of line, the two of them trade words, then start pounding on each other. The police are called, and the two of them are hauled out of the post office and given a talking to by a couple of officers. The man and woman won’t let it go, though, and they still keep trying to punch each other in the face, so they’re separated in two separate police cruisers and driven off to jail.

And then there’s the situation with two women:

Say you’re standing in line at the post office during the holidays. Everyone has been standing in line for 45 minutes, holding heavy packages and wishing they were somewhere else… when in comes a woman who’s frazzled and obviously in a big hurry. She goes to the back of the line for a little bit, but after a few minutes she starts to fidget and curse under her breath. She then proceeds to jump the line and push her way into second place. The woman standing behind her gets bent out of shape and pushes her out of line, the two of them trade words, then start pounding on each other. The police are called, and the two of them are hauled out of the post office and given a talking to by a couple of officers. They won’t let it go, though, and they still keep trying to punch each other in the face, so they’re separated in two separate police cruisers and driven off to jail.

It has a totally different feel from the scenario with two men. The situation with two men sounds like “boys being boys”, you might say. But two women behaving really badly and then coming to blows? Maybe in a toy store in LA, but in “polite society” this would stand out as an exception.

The point I’m trying to make here, is that there are different standards for acceptable behavior with men and women. And the fallout afterwards also tends to be different. With men, things can get “heated”, but with women, they get “out of hand” and the consequences are as different as the consequences for adultery in secular America versus church-centric America. In one case, it may elicit little more than a shrug, while in other cases it may result in being shunned and isolated.

Our society has a very different set of expectations for different genders, so when a woman with a TBI starts to act out, it really stands out. And it can be isolating. Unexpected, unacceptable behavior, along with social censure, can add to the cognitive load of a TBI survivor, which cuts into the available resources for just living their life, and also cuts them off from valuable social connections that can support recovery. Ultimately, if you have enough censure and isolation, without the proper feedback mechanisms for determining and modifying appropriate behavior, I would imagine things could degenerate over time and ultimately fan the flames of TBI complications, long after the initial injury has faded from memory.

If this is true in the case of women, then what about girls? I’m specifically thinking about girls who are concussed and don’t get proper care and have their concussions eventually become lasting traumatic brain injuries. What about girls who get hurt, don’t get the help they need, and end up exhibiting behaviors that alienate their friends, their families, their support groups that are necessary for healthy growth and maturation? What about them?

What makes things even more complicated, is that some of these symptoms — the aggression, the mood issues, and more — may take months to show up, so during a time when so much is in flux and changing around them, they’re all of a sudden hit with this weird new character trait of a short fuse and an explosive temper. And seemingly out of nowhere. What do they do then? If a girl is expected, pressured, trained to be a little lady, and then all of a sudden she becomes more like a wild animal, what then? If her popularity and self-image is dependent upon her behaving in a certain way, and then TBI suddenly makes it impossible for her to behave that way, what’s the impact to her development overall as a girl, then a woman?

Now I’m not saying that girls have it harder than boys, but there are differences in gender expectations, differences in behavior expectations, and if there’s one way TBI can really throw a wrench in things, it’s in the behavior area. So, if most of the studies of the impact of TBI are concerned with boys/men, what does that mean for our overall understanding of the impact — not only to the individuals, but to society as a whole?

My grandfather used to say, “Women have to be better than men. They are the ones who create our culture.” He was fine with that idea, while my mother always pursed her lips a little bit when he said that. He was an old school kind of gentleman, but there was a nugget of truth to it — although the truth was more about expectations, than actual fact.

Ultimately, I think that gender and TBI should probably be studied more closely. There’s so much to it — it’s quite mind-boggling overall. But we really need to factor it in. And when we talk about managing long-term issues, I think it can be helpful to consider to social and cultural contexts. As different as each brain injury is, as individual as each recovery is, we can’t overlook factors like gender, as well as class and ethnicity and age. It’s all a huge ball of string that begs to be unraveled, but that’s a bit beyond me right now. I’m on vacation(!) and it’s a beautiful day outside.

But first, I could really use a nap…


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