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

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.

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

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

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?”

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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