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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Discovering self-harm

We asked parents how they first discovered that their child was self-harming. This could be a sudden shocking revelation or a gradual realisation that all was not well. Erica only found out that her daughter had taken an overdose after she collapsed and empty blister packs were found in her room. Many parents had noticed scratches or wounds and asked their child how these had been caused. Sandra saw blood on her daughter’s clothes; Bernadette noticed burn marks on her son’s hands. In some cases the young person denied deliberately harming themselves: Jo-Ann’s daughter said she had scratched her arm on brambles, and Sarah Y’s daughter told her mother she had taken an overdose because she had stomach pains. Some parents found it hard to believe the truth. Jane S thought her daughter must have scratched herself accidentally but realised later that she had cut herself. Alexis believed her daughter when she said marks on her arm were caused by rubbing against a wall. 
 

When her daughter collapsed Erica realised that she had taken an overdose.

When her daughter collapsed Erica realised that she had taken an overdose.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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I’ll start at the beginning, it’s a long story but I’ll start at the beginning. My daughter was first taken ill when she was fourteen and it was totally out of the blue as far as myself and other family members were concerned. In the six months leading up to the big incident, I thought she was getting a bit depressed and I’d taken her to the GP for, you know, just some advice. And but she was thirteen and so I was thinking, “Well, there’s hormones kicking in. She’s coming into an adolescent phase.”

“It’s not easy.” Her dad and I had recently separated so there was a lot going on [sighs]. I took her to the GP for the third time over the previous several months. And at that point that GP said, “I think you’re depressed and I think you need counselling.” So I thought, okay. We’re getting somewhere but two days later or a few days later, it just all came to a huge head because she overdosed and she was just fourteen and she took, what the A and E consultant defined as, a massive overdose. What transpired later is that she had planned this for some time for quite a number of weeks and over the weeks and months she had squirreled away a huge number of tablets.

Both from my house and her dad’s house. And things came to a halt one afternoon. She’d broken up with her boyfriend. She’d had a row with him on the phone and that afternoon, I came back from work and she wasn’t home and I called her and she was coming back late from school. And she got to the house and she went straight in her room and she was very uncommunicative. She was dressed all in black. She had lots of black make-up on. She had a black hoodie and the hood was on and she wasn’t saying very much. I heard her arguing with somebody on the phone. I went in her bedroom, to pick up some washing I think, and there she was hunched up at her desk, hoodie on, very hunched up, looking very black, very quiet and I said, “Are you okay?” And she said, “Yeah, yeah. I’m okay. I’m fine.” 

It was half past six, seven, half past seven so I went back to the kitchen, prepared dinner, continued to prepare dinner. She came in the kitchen a couple of times to take two glasses of water, of milk and she came once and then she came again and she was talking to me. She was saying, you know, “What are you preparing for dinner?” So I told her and she said, “Oh good. That’s my favourite.” And we sat up, myself, her and her sister, at the dinner table and within a few minutes she got up and she went on the sofa and I was a bit angry with her for getting off the dinner table [laughs]. I was saying, stupid things like, “You must eat your greens. At least eat your greens.” Sorry, I know this is huge detail but it’s how it’s.

No, it’s fine.

It’s stuck in my mind. And then she started behaving oddly. Her speech was slurred and she tried to get up but she couldn’t. So I got I got rather scared, at that point. Because she had been on holiday a few weeks before and she had passed out, we thought maybe she needed her heart checking so she actually was waiting for a cardiologist’s appointment so, at that point, I thought, “Well, something is going wrong with her heart.” So she became very ill very quickly, losing consciousness and fitting. She was on the floor and she was having a huge fit so, of course, dial nine nine nine.

Yes.

Call an ambulance and they came round immediately. One moment they weren’t there, one moment they were there. And they said they said, “Has she taken any drugs?” I’m like, I went, typical I think, parent response, “No, my daughter doesn’t do drugs.” But we found within a few minutes, empty blister packs in her room and, at that point, I realised that she had overdosed.
 

Jane S’s daughter was in hospital with an eating disorder. When a nurse told Jane that her daughter had scratched herself Jane thought it was an accident.

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Jane S’s daughter was in hospital with an eating disorder. When a nurse told Jane that her daughter had scratched herself Jane thought it was an accident.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And the first time that I’d heard about it was one of the nurses said to me, “Oh, you know, we’re going, we’re having to think about moving your daughter because she’s got some scratches on her arms.” And I said, “Oh, you know, dear.” And she said, “Oh, yes, she’s done them using a greetings, you know, a greetings card that you know, she’s got on her table.” And I just couldn’t get my head round it. I just thought it must be an accident, you know. She must have scratched herself, you know, like a paper cut as you as you do sometimes. 

So it didn’t really sink in 

So the next five months we were kind of oblivious I suppose because we didn’t, she wasn’t living at home and then it was just sort of, obviously, it was something we had to kind of deal with, when she got back, when we realised that it was still going on and it was going on even worse than before with the cutting. I can’t remember how I first discovered it once more, when she was home, to be honest but she and I do have a really good relationship so it was it was something that I could, after a while, after a short while, you know, raise with her and just say to her, you know, “What what’s going on because I’ve now noticed that, you know, there are some marks on your arms, the inside of your arms.” 
Several parents learnt about the self-harm from the young person themselves. Annette rushed to save her son when he phoned to tell her what he had done. Nicky’s daughter woke her to say she had taken an overdose; later Nicky thought she had been cutting herself before this. Joanna’s daughter showed her wounds to her mother and was able to talk to her freely, but two of the young people disclosed their self-harm through notes to their parents. Young people may be reluctant to talk to their parents (see also ‘Talking about self-harm with the young person’) and may take care to hide the signs of self-harm. Ruth said her daughter ‘clammed up’ and wouldn’t tell her anything when she asked about cuts on her arms. 
 

Annette’s son phoned to tell her he had harmed himself and she wouldn’t see him anymore.

Annette’s son phoned to tell her he had harmed himself and she wouldn’t see him anymore.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And then came the phone call and I remember I was out at the time I think I was at work, yeah, something like that, and he phoned me and he said, “Mum.” He said, “I’ve got a bag on my head. I’ve taken some pills and I’ve cut my arm and you won’t be seeing me anymore.” And well, I think I was just in so much shock, but my instant reaction was to get in that car.

Drive as fast as I could with sadly, no care and get to him as quickly as I could and I flew into the house and yeah, he really was serious about it and he was in, he did have the bag on his head and I found him and, to be honest, I found him. 
 

Nicky’s daughter woke her to say she had taken an overdose.

Nicky’s daughter woke her to say she had taken an overdose.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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And I don’t know, was I walking round with my eyes shut? Possibly. She woke me up, the first I think I really knew about it, really, really knew about it, was five o’clock one morning and she woke me up in floods of tears and says, “Mum, I’ve done something really stupid. I’ve taken a load of paracetamol.” At which point, of course, hysteria breaks out. We get up. We take her to the hospital. They, she hadn’t taken that many, thank goodness, so she didn’t need anything other than a bit of observation and a stern talking to and we got referred to the community mental health team. No, sorry, we got referred to CAMHS, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services because it was a suicide attempt and I think, at that point, I probably started to realise that maybe I hadn’t been looking at her as closely as I had and there was some evidence of self-harm, of cutting predominately and that became more and more pronounced as time went on, in spite of our involvement with CAMHS.
 

Sharon noticed her daughter’s scars and tried to talk about them. Her daughter said she hadn’t told her because she didn’t want to upset her.

Sharon noticed her daughter’s scars and tried to talk about them. Her daughter said she hadn’t told her because she didn’t want to upset her.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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Yeah, I first noticed a few marks on her arms, underneath her arms about November, December time last year so two thousand and eleven.

Right.

I asked her about them and she said she’d just caught herself, just general knocks and bumps and things but, having had experience myself of self-harm, I could see that it obviously wasn’t. We moved back to here a few months later. I tried to talk to her about it a few more times and she didn’t really say anything but there didn’t appear to be any more. I knew that she’d had friends that had self-harmed and had issues so I, I tended to talk to her as if I was talking about them and saying that, “Oh well, I found out from, from my psychologist that,” reasons behind it and how it can help physically initially, and, and different things, just to sort of get across to her that this is what’s going on, what could be going on but geared as if I was talking about her friends. 

And she just, she just sort of wore a lot of bangles, which was quite noticeable, long sleeves and then we moved back to here in early May and I hadn’t noticed any, she’d been a bit down. She’d been a bit down for a couple of years, up and down, not too bad but history of depression in the family. A lot had gone on. My partner and I had separated over the last three years. She’d had issues at school. She wasn’t happy with the teachers. A lot of her friends had their own issues and she was a great support for them. I’d moved out of the family home and then she’d come to move in with me two years later and then we both moved back here when my ex-husband moved out. So a lot had gone on so I wasn’t surprised she’d been a bit up and down. 

And then I’d noticed, she was in a t-shirt one day and I’d just noticed that the tops of both of her arms were covered in scars, very, very fine and healed, so obviously, reasonably old but absolutely covered and I just said to her, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And she said, “I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want you to upset you.” And I asked her when she’d started doing it and she said, “Oh ages ago, years ago.” And it, it turned out that it was after I’d, after the break-up and after I’d moved out of the home, around that sort of period, so it was around three and a half years ago she’d started. But she’d said that she’d got it under control and she was okay with it and it, and then I moved onto the more recent ones, that was just a couple. She’d had her first serious relationship that had been a bit full on, a bit hectic and they’d both agreed to separate and…

…she’d sort of reverted back to it. 
Several parents first learnt of their child’s self-harm when they were contacted by teachers or hospital staff who had noticed signs of cutting or burning. Isobel, Tam and Pat were told by one of their other children, while Susan Z and Roisin were alerted by a friend of their child. Three parents had discovered the self-harm through reading their child’s diary.
 

Roisin found out her daughter was cutting herself when a ‘sensible and caring’ friend told her daughter’s father.

Roisin found out her daughter was cutting herself when a ‘sensible and caring’ friend told her daughter’s father.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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Yeah, my daughter is seventeen now and when she was thirteen, one of her friends told her dad that she’d been cutting herself with glass that she’d been collecting somehow and she said that, she said that she knew she said that she told my daughter she was going to tell us and, obviously, she tried to persuade her not to but her friend, being, you know, a very sensible girl and obviously caring about her, said, “No, I’m going to tell them because it’s the right thing to do.” And so she told her dad and obviously, the first thing he did is phone me up because, obviously, we’re divorced and we split up when she was four. And, you know, we have a very good relationship and we’ve never been one of those people who when they’ve divorced that they use their child as a pawn and we’ve always continued to have a good relationship with each other, obviously, because she’s the most important thing to both of us. So we do communicate a lot about her, which she doesn’t like [laughs] or she never used to like [laughs]. I think she appreciates it now. Yeah, so he phoned me and told me.
 

Gwendoline was shocked to discover from her daughter’s diary that she had been self-harming for years.

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Gwendoline was shocked to discover from her daughter’s diary that she had been self-harming for years.

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Well, I think, you know, when we found out that our daughter was self-harming it was a massive shock. And, you know, we were just so stunned that it had been going on for, you know, that it had started happening, you know, a few years before we had any idea about it and I found out because we were worried about her and, you know, I noticed her diary, when I was tidying, and thought I’d have a look and that was when I discovered that she’d actually mentioned that she’d started self-harming again, which was how I realised that she’d obviously been self-harming before. So she was probably about twelve I guess, must have been starting secondary school and then she had, obviously, stopped and then started again. But it was very covert and very, you know, I mean we had no idea that she was that she was self-harming so it wasn’t, you know, blatant and she was obviously, it was a very controlled self-harming because she actually put in her diary that she was worried that that we would find out but she was doing it in such a place that it was very, very easy to hide.
As Gwendoline’s experience shows, self-harm may go on for a long time before parents become aware of it. Joanne found out about her daughter’s self-harm when she was fourteen, but said, ‘She’s confessed to me that she started doing it when she was nine and she’s hidden it all that time.’ Liz thought her daughter had been secretly cutting herself for about a year before it became obvious. Jackie commented ‘When it started and when I noticed are completely different things.’

For some parents the discovery was their first experience of self-harm whereas others knew the signs to look out for. Ann said this was the first time she’d come across somebody who self-harmed. ‘It had never been in my world up to that point.’ Sarah Z told us ‘I didn’t know anything really about it. I knew it existed but had no personal experience of it or knew anybody who had any personal experience of it. So it sort of came from nowhere to us.’ Sharon’s daughter said the marks on her arms were the result of general knocks and bumps but Sharon had personal experience of self-harm and could see that she had caused them herself. 
 

Vicki knew about self-harm through a friend’s niece so was able to recognize the signs and ask her daughter directly if she was harming herself.

Vicki knew about self-harm through a friend’s niece so was able to recognize the signs and ask her daughter directly if she was harming herself.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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You said when you noticed the scratches that you knew what it was. Can you say a bit more about that, about how you knew?

I had an idea that that’s what it was because I have a friend who has who has a niece who had self-harmed and we’ve had conversations about that so I know that it exists and I and I know what it what it can look like and yeah, I sort of basically had to ask her, you know, “Is that something that that you’ve done to yourself or have you had some sort of accident?’ And she was, you know, she was quite open in saying, “Yes, I have been.” So, yeah.
While many parents were able to recall vividly the moment they discovered their child’s self-harm, Philip and Mary couldn’t remember when they first realised that their son was cutting himself, and Liz said there was no ‘light-bulb moment’ when she became aware of her daughter’s self-harm, but it was something that gradually became obvious.
 

Liz can’t remember how she first knew her daughter was cutting herself, but when she started self-harming again Liz recognised the signs and could talk to her daughter about this.

Liz can’t remember how she first knew her daughter was cutting herself, but when she started self-harming again Liz recognised the signs and could talk to her daughter about this.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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Well, I can’t exactly remember when I first knew that she was self-harming actually because it it’s quite a secretive behaviour and I think it was happening for a long time before we knew.

Yes.

It was probably, I think, about a year after she started that it became obvious to us. She was then cutting herself and she was cutting the top of her thighs so we didn’t see it. She became quite secretive about getting dressed and undressed and, if we were on holiday, one year we were on holiday and I remember she… we go to Cornwall where it’s cold and she put her wetsuit on very quickly. So she was, she was hiding it.

She wasn’t public with it at all and I honestly can’t remember. It wasn’t a light bulb moment. It wasn’t a moment of great discovery. It was something that became obvious and that I felt I needed to talk to her about and she refused first of all.

I think that was really the turning point of her harming behaviour, except then it started again. She was treated for her eating disorder. She slowly recovered from her eating disorder. We had some fantastic, fantastic help from the CAMHS team and gradually, she got over it and she finished at school and she went off to London and was very unhappy and the behaviour that I thought had stopped, started again. And she, this time round, didn’t tell me but that was because she felt like a failure. It wasn’t because she was embarrassed of it because she was, by then, cutting herself on her arm so it was it was clear and she, we went to see her in London and I didn’t know. She had a long sleeved cardigan on. I didn’t think anything about it. She was telling me how unhappy she was and that she felt she needed help and I just didn’t think to probe about was she harming herself?

The next time I saw her, she’d got, in fact, no, I saw a photo of her that a friend had taken and I noticed on her wrists she had tubigrip and I thought, “Uh oh, I don’t like the look of that.” And, by this time, I’d learnt, I’d learnt a lot during the passage of these few years and it’s about picking your moment to bring things up. I didn’t jump in, which is what I would have done two years previously. I waited I waited until we were together. She was relaxed and I said, “Are you cutting yourself?” And she went, “Yeah.” And I said, “Could you have not told me?” And she went, “No.” And I think it was, well, I said, “Why why could you not have told me? With all that we’ve been through, why could you not have told me that you were doing it again?” She said, “Because I’ve failed you.”

How sad is that? How sad is that? And, of course, she hadn’t failed me. She hadn’t failed anyone. She was feeling rough and she reverted to the one way she knew of coping.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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