Sandra’s older daughter started self-harming after being bullied at secondary school, but has now learned strategies to cope and has not harmed herself for two years.
Sandra’s older daughter nearly died after developing septicaemia when she was born prematurely. She then had years of surgical treatment for a facial deformity. Sandra describes her as an impulsive, demanding child. When she was about six she was seen by a CAMHS therapist for about a year. Her behaviour improved but she was bullied at her secondary school and started cutting herself. Sandra took her to hospital and contacted the therapeutic services. Her daughter later took an overdose and tried to hang herself, but was saved by Sandra’s quick intervention. Sandra found this extremely stressful and alarming. She was also angry and questioned God for not intervening. She sought advice from her daughter’s god parents, but her daughter was very angry when she discovered this so Sandra did not involve them again. She has coped by accessing professional help and giving her daughter unconditional support, teaching her to take one day at a time, face her problems and not give up. She also found it helpful to distract her daughter by encouraging her to remember happy times in her life. She tried to make her daughter realise the effect her suicide would have on the rest of the family, but avoids making her feel guilty and praises positive behaviour. Her daughter has not harmed herself for two years and is now at college. Sandra is very proud of how her daughter has blossomed even though every day is still a struggle.
All the family had to be vigilant, hiding anything that could be used for self-harm. After her attempt to hang herself they were frightened to leave her alone in the house, and were very sensitive about saying the wrong thing to her. Sandra says the impact on the family was phenomenal, and there were times when she and her husband were on the verge of breaking up, but they stayed together and proved to their daughter that you can overcome difficulties by working at them. Her husband was angry at first and couldn’t understand why their daughter needed to harm herself. Sandra had to calm him down and explain that their daughter was stressed and unhappy. He now supports Sandra in her way of dealing with the situation. Sandra’s younger daughter was also very angry at her sister’s behaviour. Sandra bought her a punch bag so that she could release some of this aggression, and told her that it was her sister’s way of coping with pain, but that if she herself felt bad she should talk to Sandra instead of copying her sister. She has encouraged her older daughter to be a positive role model for her sister. Sandra thinks it’s important for both daughters to feel validated, so she and her husband make sure to spend quality time with each of their daughters and to reassure them that they are loved.
Sandra works as a social worker and found it difficult when her own family needed help, but she didn’t allow her pride to prevent her accessing services for her daughter. She decided against family therapy because of her professional position, but encouraged her daughter to engage with the CAMHS service, which she found very supportive. At times Sandra secretly checked her daughter’s diary and phone so that she could ring her friends if she was missing, and she would alert the school if her daughter had had a bad night. Sandra has a very strong faith and has found God and her church pastors a great source of help and inspiration. She feels that her intuition, common sense approach and professionalism have empowered her as a parent to cope with all the stress of her daughter’s self-harming over the years. She is planning to share her experience with members of a self-harm charity, and thinks that the taboo surrounding self-harm has resulted in a lack of funding for support organisations.
Sandra wonders whether she spoilt her daughter to overcompensate for all the operations she went through. She has now learnt not to give in to all her daughter’s demands and has been pleased with the way her daughter has reacted she organised a holiday job and is focused on her college work. Although she is still anxious that her daughter might harm herself in future, Sandra concentrates on remaining positive and taking one day at a time. She tells her daughter that what she is going through won’t last and that she believes in her and her ability to excel in what she chooses to do. Sandra thinks this belief has helped her daughter turn her life around.
Sandra says a lot depends on how you react when your child is self-harming. It’s not always wise to get angry and shout at them, because they’re hurting and it’s a cry for help‚It’s a way of releasing some of that pain that they’re going through’. She advises parents to communicate with their children, to understand them, and to follow their intuition if they suspect something is not right.
She advises clinicians to understand that people who self-harm are sensitive and need reassurance, and to recognise their unique qualities. She says they need to be heard, they need to be validated, and they need to know that they matter.’