A-Z

Burn Injuries

Experiences of and support for parents of children with burn injuries

This section covers:

  • Emotional impacts, including feeling helpless and guilty
  • Blame for what happened
  • Worries about being judged as a parent
  • Looking after a child with a burn and juggling other responsibilities
  • Accessing support and speaking to other parents

When a child sustains a burn injury, parents and other relatives are often deeply impacted by the experience too. Burn injuries can be traumatic for the whole family, regardless of what happened or who was around at the time.

Emotional impacts, including feeling helpless and guilty

Many of the parents we spoke to had been emotionally impacted by what had happened to their child. Some experienced anxiety, helplessness and feelings of low self-esteem, or felt angry about what had happened. Simon told us that, after his son was burnt, he went into shock, and it took him a while for the accident to “register” in his mind. Lily struggled with “the grief and sadness I felt inside” after her child was burnt. Jessica said that she was “extremely emotional” for around a year after her daughter was burnt, and that things would “easily upset” her. Jessica said that she was “extremely emotional” for around a year after her daughter was burnt, and things would “easily upset” her.

 

Jessica told us that her confidence as a parent was knocked after her daughter was burnt.

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Jessica told us that her confidence as a parent was knocked after her daughter was burnt.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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I found it awful at the beginning. Didn’t want to see anybody, but obviously I had to because I had to go back on the school run and see people. I found it very hard to talk to anyone about it. Felt just so guilty all the time. Yeah, I didn’t really want to speak to people and then, if people wanted to speak to me, I just used to find that awful, even though they were trying to be nice. Going back to the hospital was very traumatic each time for me and for my daughter I think, just for the normal check-ups. It just used to sort of bring it all back each time. But that did slowly get better. Again, it’s just sort of time. Just the time thing, just learning to accept it as an accident. Took me a long time to do that.

When it first happened, I really lost confidence in myself as a parent because before then I always thought I was quite a good parent. But it just really knocked my confidence for a long time. I’ve never been through a traumatic experience before so, it was the first time I’ve had to deal with those sorts of emotions. And that I did find it quite hard to come to terms with. But, over time it does get easier.

Some parents described putting on a brave face for their children, even when they themselves felt frightened and overwhelmed. Abi, who wasn’t with her son at the time he was burnt, thinks she would have struggled to stay calm and reassuring on the way to hospital, and that her emotional reaction might have upset him more. When Lily’s son had a debridement treatment, her instinct was to close her eyes, but she stopped herself from doing this and instead talked to him calmly and reassuringly. Although Jessica finds it upsetting to be reminded of what happened when she sees her daughter’s burn scars, she doesn’t want her daughter to grow up feeling she has to cover up.

Feeling guilty was spoken about by many of the parents we interviewed. Regardless of the circumstances of the burn, or whether they were present at the time, most parents told us they felt guilty that their child had been burnt. Some described seeing it as their ‘jobs’ as parents to protect their child from experiencing any harm, and so a burn injury could make them feel they had failed to do this.

Holly said that “parental guilt is just the worst thing” and she thought that mums perhaps feel this all the more. Jasmine doesn’t believe she will “ever move past” feeling guilty about her child’s burn because it was “caused by something I did” accidentally. Lindsay said that “even though I had nothing to feel guilty about, I still felt guilty” because her daughter had been hurt.

 

Chris X experienced “immense guilt” after his daughter was burnt and felt that he had “failed to protect” her.

Chris X experienced “immense guilt” after his daughter was burnt and felt that he had “failed to protect” her.

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I had an expectation to have a huge amount of judgement, because that was undoubtedly the emotion I had over the whole of the thing, was that of guilt. Immense guilt, because it was entirely my fault. This child you’re supposed to protect, that you’ve failed to protect at this point, that was the difficult part of it.

I felt extremely guilty. I felt like I’d failed as, you know, the parent in charge at that point. I felt apologetic to my wife that I’d allowed one of my children to become damaged – that is not what I should be doing – I should be doing the opposite. I would imagine some alcohol was consumed I would guess. But yeah, those feelings were very profound in terms of feeling like a total failure. And that just immense feeling of guilt, and that feeling of if I could have made this happen to me rather than her, you know, a two-year-old child, you’d want that to happen every time. So, it was, yeah, that was the beginning of kind of, I suppose, trying to process it mentally, the situation.

 

Simon said he felt more guilty when he learnt that his son’s burn would leave a permanent scar.

Simon said he felt more guilty when he learnt that his son’s burn would leave a permanent scar.

Age at interview: 34
Sex: Male
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I think my guilt kind of intensified and my shame of it grew the more I kind of understood, well no, it’s not going to be gone in a week, it’s not like a scab, it’s not going to scab over and go, it’s permanent for him.

I didn’t want to relive it. For me, it was a horrible lapse in judgement, it was a moment that I would take away in a heartbeat. I mean, people say if you did a day in your life again, that would be the day that I would redo because then that wouldn’t have happened to him and he would be, you know, you’d look at his back and there’d be nothing there.

It’s kind of a dark episode for me and I’m kind of one of these people who compartmentalise things and I think I’ve put it somewhere, but I only deal with it when I have to. So, kind of it comes across as like ‘Well, you’re not really that bothered about it, are you?’ Whereas actually I’m kind of a bit worried about what they’re going to say tomorrow, whether or not the laser surgery’s still on the card or the skin graft is going to be needed. Are they going to be ok with it, does it look ok? Yeah, it’s um … it’s more … it grows as you kind of process it more, I think, and then you kind of, obviously, you deal with it and you rationalise it in your mind and you then are able to move on from it I suppose. But constantly thinking “Be careful, be careful, be careful, be careful!”.

 

Chris Y and Amy said they felt guilt in different ways after their son, William, was burnt.

Chris Y and Amy said they felt guilt in different ways after their son, William, was burnt.

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Amy: I think I found it harder, especially in the early days, because it was the guilt, because he was cooking dinner for his siblings and that’s like a parent role. Even though he’d done it and it’s part of life skills and the fact that I was at work, and I wasn’t at home, not that things would have been any different and, actually, if I’d been home and not Chris, I don’t think I would have got water onto him quite as quickly. But, yeah, I think it was the guilt and wondering whether people are judging you for actually you’ve made …

Chris: And interestingly, the, on that kind of front, people were more questioning of the fact that we’d let him cook. Not that he was cooking but “Oh you let, you let the kids cook?” It’s like “Yeah, what’s he going to do when he goes to university? Just eat beans out of a tin?” You know, no, of course he cooks. He’s been cooking for years.

Chris: I think probably one of the hardest things for me was everybody telling me that his burns wouldn’t have been so bad, weren’t as bad as they could have been because I’d got to him. And actually, tempering that with the fact that I was sat in the living room, and he was doing the work. And so that guilt of “I could have been doing that and then he wouldn’t have got burned.”

Amy: The guilt thing we have different, we have the same guilt but in different ways and Chris got to hear the screaming, I got to see the debriding bit, yeah, we just saw different sides of what was happening and…

Chris: Another shared experience, isn’t it?

Blame for what happened

After their child was burnt, a lot of parents blamed themselves or their partners for what had happened. Sometimes this impacted on their relationships. Some said that even though they didn’t want to feel this way, it could be hard to shed these feelings. Abi’s son was spending time with his dad when he was burnt. Abi told us that for a long time afterwards, she was “very harsh” and “angry” with her son’s dad. She struggled with initial feelings that it might not have happened had her son been in her care. When her son was burnt, Catherine said that it was “a challenging time” and she and her partner “tried not to blame each other”.

 

Abi felt very angry towards her son’s dad for a long time and questioned “how could this have happened if he was being watched?”

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Abi felt very angry towards her son’s dad for a long time and questioned “how could this have happened if he was being watched?”

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
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But I remember after sort of coming to the realisation that I needed to get to where he was and what had happened, one of the first questions that came to me was “Where? How did it happen? How could this have happened if he was being watched?” I remember feeling really angry because, you know, although they’re all his family and it was actually his dad and things, I felt that “Had he have been with me this wouldn’t have happened” which it would have done, it was completely unavoidable, but I remember feeling really angry and just baffled as to how this had happened.

I remember being really, and I regret it now, but I remember being really harsh, shall we say, towards my husband for a long time afterwards because, naturally, being his mum, I felt that I was the best person, that it wouldn’t have happened in my care kind of thing. And I remember being really angry “Where were you? How did you let this happen? You know he’s into everything.” And I remember being really horrible about it. Not dramatically horrible but sort of being a bit judgmental, shall we say, towards how my husband, you know, “You didn’t even go with him in the ambulance” and things, and I didn’t really think that, at the time, it was because it was completely horrific for him. And I do feel bad about that now, but it was just the way I dealt with it, I guess.

Working through these feelings could be difficult and take some time. Holly found it was hard to “not have blame” towards her husband when her son was accidentally burnt: “I’d say I’ve forgiven him, but I haven’t forgotten”. Simon thought it took a while for his wife to “trust me to do it properly” in terms of a bath, cream and dressings routine for his son at night.

Going through the difficult experience of their child being burnt brought some couples closer together. Although he hopes never to have to go through anything like it again, Simon said it was “reassuring” in the sense that “we can work through it as a mum and a dad, and a husband and a wife”.

 

Sinead said that she and her husband grew closer together after their daughter was burnt.

Sinead said that she and her husband grew closer together after their daughter was burnt.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
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We got on, actually, we got on quite well, if I’m honest, and we probably got more close than ever before and I’m well aware it can go the opposite way, and it could have easily gone, I’m sure, the opposite way with us, in a highly stressful situation and, you know, it’s-, and you’re on top of each other all the time, you know, in the same room and I think we’re quite good at acknowledging when you need a bit of space, when one of us needs-, we did a lot of shift work staying over with Elizabeth, so we weren’t constantly kind of in each other’s faces, and my husband likes to pace up and down so when he would pace up and down and drive me insane I would tell him to go and get a coffee or try and do everything in the politest way, when you probably want to just scream at them to, but you need each other and that’s the-, you need people, whether it’s a partner, a mum or dad, whatever, you need people who know you and he was my person, there was nobody else.

 

Chris X said his wife had been “immensely supportive” when their daughter was burnt and reassured him that “these things happen”.

Chris X said his wife had been “immensely supportive” when their daughter was burnt and reassured him that “these things happen”.

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She was really good about it. Which I, with hindsight would have always expected her to be, because we do share the work of parenting reasonably down the middle. So, it’s not like it was, don’t know what I’m trying to say, no, she was very good about it, and she was trying to be reassuring that these things happen and that kind of thing. But she was, it would have been easy to imagine her being angry, but she wasn’t. And she obviously, I mean, there would be no benefit to that anyway, but she could obviously see that I was, like, negatively impacted by the whole thing. So, yeah, she wanted to know what happened, I explained what happened um, and I think probably she was reassuring, and I think probably the reality is she’s done the whole thing of putting the child on the countertop thing – I think she’s done that as well and, you know, she probably said something like that. Because it was something that WE did. It was a kind of a routine thing to do. So, yeah, it was fine. She’s been immensely supportive throughout the whole thing.

It was helpful because I didn’t need anybody else beating me up, because I was already beating myself up enough. It would almost have not made any difference anyway because I was so disappointed in myself that it wouldn’t have made any difference whether anybody else had been any more disappointed anyway.

A few parents worried about how they would explain what happened to their child in the future, and whether their child would blame them for their injury. Simon said that right now his son, “with the forgiving mind of a child, [knows] it’s an accident”. But he wasn’t sure how his son might feel in the future, and jokingly imagined his son might “hold it over me and go, “Dad, you know how you burnt my back? Can I have a new car?”.

Worries about being judged as a parent

Some parents shared their worries that their parenting abilities would be judged by others because their child has a burn. This included the fear that the healthcare professionals treating their child would assume that they were a “terrible person” or an “unfit parent”. However, many of the parents said that their initial concerns were unfounded as hospital staff were supportive and reassured them that accidents happen.

 

Simon said he felt “paranoid” about what the hospital staff treating his son thought of him.

Simon said he felt “paranoid” about what the hospital staff treating his son thought of him.

Age at interview: 34
Sex: Male
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Initially, I felt guilt and a little bit of paranoia, you know, what are these healthcare professionals thinking of me? You know, we all do it. Children in my school tell me things all the time and automatically my head goes to “What was the parent doing? What was their story? How’s the …” you know, and I know my class and my parents quite well, so I can sort of differentiate between the two. But when it’s kind of happening to you, it’s a really odd feeling. I know we’re professionals and we don’t judge each other but, you know, in your mind you’re always thinking “Oh, this guy’s burnt his son, what an idiot. But is he really, is he a horrible man? Is the wife ok? Is there any marks on the daughter?” Do you know what I mean? It’s that paranoia, checking up on you constantly and actually, it wasn’t but, for me, it felt that way. Guilt, I think, more than anything.

 

Lindsay felt like she needed to “explain herself” to the hospital staff treating her daughter’s burn.

Lindsay felt like she needed to “explain herself” to the hospital staff treating her daughter’s burn.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I was very concerned that I would potentially be judged that my child had a burn. I felt, the first thing I think I said to my local hospital and the burn’s unit was “She was on a scout camp. She was on a scout camp. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t informed.” Because, yeah, I suppose I felt like I needed to explain myself that, you know, the burn happened on a Friday, and we didn’t attend a hospital until the Tuesday. I felt I needed to defend that action. Because then I’m going in saying “Do you know, I’m really worried about this burn.” So that was definitely something on my mind that I would almost be judged that my child had a burn. How had this been allowed?

 

Chris X felt relieved that the healthcare practitioners treating his daughter were not judgmental.

Chris X felt relieved that the healthcare practitioners treating his daughter were not judgmental.

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I think probably the staff gave the impression that they had children or had children that had grown up and that concept of, you know “You can only do so much”, you know you can only protect kids to a certain degree, and things happen and they do, you know, accidents happen, kids make mistakes, you know, people look the other way, all that sort of stuff, and these things happen. They very much gave that, you know, I didn’t feel judged by them at all. And, of course, you think, you know, they work in a burn’s unit with children, that’s what they see. So, they were good in that regard.

At the same time, some parents recognised that it was important for health professionals and sometimes social services to ask questions about what happened, in order to be sure it definitely was an accident.

A fear of being judged as parents also stopped some people from talking to friends and wider family about what happened. Holly praised her mum’s support but found that her feelings of guilt had put her off from talking to her wider family.

Looking after a child with a burn and juggling other responsibilities

The people we spoke to told us that being the parent of a child with a burn can sometimes be a difficult experience. There were extra things to think about, such as attending hospital appointments, balancing childcare, managing work and finances, worrying about their child being hurt again, and helping their child to recover from the burn.

 

For Jasmine, regularly applying creams to her daughter added another tasks to being a mum.

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For Jasmine, regularly applying creams to her daughter added another tasks to being a mum.

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And time, I’m more time poor because I now have to spend the time, for the last two years, used to be four times a day I was treating her. Four times a day for almost two years, making sure that the area is covered. And you have creams with you when you go away or when you go on a sleepover and, you know, it’s time and it’s thought and it’s just one more thing to do.

And is that difficult for you?

It can be, you know, and then if you forget you think ‘Oh jeez, you forgot’ and then you feel guilty because you forgot about it. So, it can be difficult but then you just have to think ‘Ok, I’m doing the best I can. Let’s try to stay positive, I’m doing the best I can.’

Taking care of their injured child and being very involved with the medical care was important to some who felt guilt about their child’s burn, like Lily. Chris X felt this too: “I was adamant this was MY problem, this was my fault and that was part of my process, is I had to take her to everything. Yeah, it was my responsibility”.

Treatment decisions were another important issue for parents. Sinead spoke about how she and her partner needed to make important and sometimes very difficult treatment choices on behalf of their daughter, Elizabeth.

 

Sinead found it easier to make treatment decisions when her daughter, Elizabeth, was younger.

Sinead found it easier to make treatment decisions when her daughter, Elizabeth, was younger.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
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I remember, very early on, and I’ve said it many, many times over the years, that I couldn’t wait for Elizabeth to be of an age where she can make these decisions herself, which sounds really, really selfish but it was, I suppose to take the-, sounds awful, like the guilt off me. That she chooses to have these operations because she wants them, not because I am pushing her to have them or you know, it comes from her. It sounds really, really selfish but it’s, yeah, I’ve always said I couldn’t wait for her to get to an age where she can just kind of make her own decisions herself.

And is that getting easier for you as she gets older or is it more of a worry?

I thought it would be easier but it’s actually not. So, yeah, I don’t know because obviously, you know, we’re at a stage now where she needs things done and I suppose she’s going to start saying to me now “Well actually, I don’t want this done” when I know she needs it done. So, it just the different stages, I suppose when you’re very, you know, you’ve a very young child, you wish for them to be bigger so that they can do something else, you know, make them more independent, make them more whatever it is, and it’s the same with surgery. But now I’m at that stage, I’m like “Oh my God, it was so much easier when she was younger, and I could mind her and mollycoddle her.” So, yeah, I suppose it’s just the same for anything in life, you’re constantly wanting something else and then it comes along, and you think “Actually, that was easier.”

A few said their parenting in general had been affected since their child had been burnt. Lily told us that when her son was burnt, she was scared at first “even to touch him”. Abi told us that she became a “more anxious parent” after her son was burnt, though she tries to “not let this affect him”. Lindsay said that she is “less complacent” about things now and is more aware that “split seconds change things”. Holly is “a lot more conscious of the sun” and the risk of sunburn.

Some of the parents we spoke to found it difficult at times to balance other responsibilities, such as looking after their other children. Sinead told us that, shortly after her daughter was burnt, her other children needed to live with relatives in another country. She said being separated from the rest of her family was an “isolating” and “lonely” time and made her feel “guilty”.

 

Jessica was worried about how her twin daughters would cope being separated when one of them was burnt and needed to stay in hospital.

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Jessica was worried about how her twin daughters would cope being separated when one of them was burnt and needed to stay in hospital.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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It sounds like it was a very uncertain time and the fact that the hospital was an hour away, what was that like for you, the journey there?

It made the whole thing worse in the fact that she is an identical twin, because I had to take her away from her other twin. It’s the first time that they’d ever been separated, so that was quite difficult and because I felt very guilty about the whole situation and, obviously, splitting them was very difficult. I wondered how they would manage without each other. They’d never spent any time apart at all. But actually, they were both fine but, obviously worried when you don’t know how things are going to be and the hospital being an hour away was quite difficult in terms of my husband and my other children being able to visit, although they did come and see us every day after school.

How long did your daughter stay in hospital for?

I think that we were initially in for two days, but they just have to get you sort of settled, get the burns dressed and everything and get you to a point where they can then send you home. I think it was two days, but we were only home for less than 12 hours when I realised that something wasn’t right with her. So, then we had to make the decision about who was going to take her back, what we were going to do, again because we had to go back to the hospital that was an hour away. But we found it was better that, even though I was tired, that I took her still, because we thought I’d have to stay longer, and also, because I had to go in the night, I had to leave my children again and, obviously, they didn’t know where we had gone when they woke up.

 

Sinead found it difficult to explain to her other children why she and her daughter Elizabeth needed to stay at a hospital in another country.

Sinead found it difficult to explain to her other children why she and her daughter Elizabeth needed to stay at a hospital in another country.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
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I think it’s always, you know, worry for other children. And my parents and sister, who they were living with at the time, because they gave up their life to care for our children. But I think it was the hardest-, because our other children were so young that it was the hardest part was, I suppose, for them asking questions, especially our oldest one at the time because he was only I think he was six and kind of saying ‘Well, why do you and daddy have to be with Elizabeth but we’ve got nobody?’. And that was really, really difficult because, trying to explain that to, like, a just-gone six-year-old, you know, that she’s really ill and she needs both of us, and he was like ‘But we need you too.’ So, it’s-, the other two were probably too small really to kind of understand. But that was, you know, that obviously breaks your heart as a parent because you’re torn between this and that and you feel like you can’t please anybody and you’re making everybody upset, including yourself. So, that was probably the hardest part, you know, the living in temporary accommodation or, you know, running back and forth to hospital. It’s, you know, as hard as it is, I think when you’ve got other children and you’re torn between everybody that was probably the most heart-breaking part of everything. And the guilt probably.

What was the guilt like?

Well guilt is awful and it’s the worst as a mother anyway. You know, I’d ring up every day to speak to them, to Facetime them, whatever, and they wouldn’t want to speak to me, especially the older one because, obviously, he understood a little-, a tiny little bit more than the other two but yeah, it’s just like that guilt coming away from the phone or video and, you know like your heart is aching because you’ve got, like, nobody and you want to please everyone but you’re pleasing nobody and it’s yeah, the guilt is horrible. And then questioning yourself as well, ‘Well, maybe one of us should be with them and one of us should be here.’ You just literally are torn between everything and everyone.

Accessing support and speaking to other parents

For many of the parents we interviewed, speaking to other parents and hearing stories of similar childhood accidents helped them to process and accept what had happened to their own child. Jessica said that hearing about similar stories “made it a little bit easier” to know that she was not the only one going through the experience. When Simon shared with his colleagues that his son had been burnt, they responded with anecdotes about their own children’s accidents. He said hearing these stories reassured him that people were not judging him as a “terrible parent”.

After his daughter was burnt, Chris X was hesitant to attend a camping weekend with family friends because he knew it would “come up in discussion”. However, talking to other parents helped him to realise that “these things happen”.

A few people said they have been given leaflets with contact details of organisations they could speak to if they needed support or someone to talk to. This was the case for Jessica, although she found that “reaching out is the harder thing”. In hindsight, she thinks speaking to someone would have been beneficial.

Some people felt that it “wasn’t the right time” for them to speak to someone in the early days and weeks after their child was burnt. A couple of parents also told us that they did not feel as though their child was burnt “severely” enough to warrant accessing support.

 

Abi wishes she had been offered more support, even though she felt like she “didn’t belong” in counselling for parents of a child with a burn.

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Abi wishes she had been offered more support, even though she felt like she “didn’t belong” in counselling for parents of a child with a burn.

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
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If I’m being honest, we weren’t given any support other than, obviously, the surveys and things. But with regards to support for us, there wasn’t really anything, if I’m honest, unless I completely missed it, or whatever, we weren’t given any you know, cards with names on it or numbers, other than that link to ‘If you struggle in the future, this might be a good site for you’ but even then I found the site “Oh, I can’t really use that because that’s for people with…” I felt bad that it wasn’t bad, if that makes sense. So, I felt that I didn’t belong in the counselling for burn victims because mine was going to solve itself, mine was going to go away kind of thing. So yeah, it was difficult. I would have liked the support, but would I have used it, is the question.

I probably would have, initially after everything had calmed down, I would have probably liked to have been offered some support rather than “If you need it, it’s on the back of this” kind of thing. I know that’s pretty much what they’ve done on the form, but they didn’t say, you know “If you’re struggling there’s a helpline.” They just said “Oh, there’s a number there if you need it” pretty much. So, it would have been nice to have been, you know “How are you feeling about it? Are you feeling confident that you can carry this on at home?” and things. It was just a very quick process really.

I’m one of these people that I think “Oh” you know ‘I don’t really have the right to moan because it was …’ but, if I’m being honest, if I was to get counselling for it there’s probably a lot more that would come out, as it were, than I think. But do I want to reopen it, or do I just move on and accept that it happened, and we were really lucky? I’m kind of in limbo with would I have took the support or would I have just got on with it kind of thing?

A few parents said they didn’t feel a need to access any formal mental health support for themselves after their child was burnt. Some, like Catherine, said that their friends and family were their support networks, and this felt like enough to them. However, wider family support was not always available or offered. Abi’s wider family asked how her son was after he was burnt, but nobody “asked how I was doing”.

Some of the parents we interviewed had spoken with a psychologist about their child’s burn injury. Lily told us that she had spoken with a psychologist over the phone. Holly had spoken once with a psychologist at the burns unit where her son was receiving treatment. This could be important in helping them recognise and make sense of the emotional impact on them as parents, as well as the emotional impacts for their children, from the burn injury.

Sinead didn’t understand at first why she was offered sessions with a psychologist and didn’t think it was “the right time”. As time has passed, she feels better able to talk and now speaks to a psychologist.

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