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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Effects of self-harm on the family

Living with a young person who self-harms can have a major effect on family relationships. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about their families and how they had been affected (see also ‘Impact on parents and carers’, ‘Impact on siblings’).

Many parents described the stress experienced by the whole family. Debbie and Sandra said it was like ‘walking on eggshells’. The devastating effect of his daughter’s self-harming and eating disorder was ‘like a tsunami’ for Jim. ‘It’s just been chaos,’ Ruth told us, ‘it’s really created a chaotic sort of existence for all of us in the house.’
 

Everyone in Jane S’s family was affected by the 'strain and stress'.

Everyone in Jane S’s family was affected by the 'strain and stress'.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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The strain and stress on the whole family and on the principal, you know, carers and your, you know, emotions, your heart is kind of overwhelmed and almost broken really because you can’t imagine why the person you love, who you think so highly of, could feel so badly about themselves and, as she’d say, want to die. And to hear her say that, when actually she’s had really good support and lots of opportunities, you know, it just doesn’t seem to fit and you, you know, you, you question, you question yourself really, you question the part that you might have played, your family, you doubt and you say to yourself, you know, “Why us? Why me? Why her?” And I suppose it’s pointless doing that over and over again. You can’t forever stay at that level because you’d never move on but you, you do feel like that to begin with anyway or we did anyway, you know, we did. 

And, you know, not being able to fathom it and then I got a bit annoyed because my husband was still saying, “Well, I just don’t understand it,” sort of when I’d moved on and that then creates a rift between the two of you because I’m saying to him, “Well, why don’t you understand it because I understand it better now? Have you talked to her? Why don’t you talk to her? Shouldn’t you be talking to her?” And I think it did create a bit of a barrier in their relationship. 

So you’re, you’re trying to do so many things all at once. You’re trying to keep your own family going, see to your other children, be interested in them and they have, you know, happenings. They have sports events or they have a birthday and life goes on doesn’t it, you know, and yet you’ve got this horrible hole where, you know, the person you thought you had in my older daughter wasn’t really there. She’d been replaced by somebody who had all these terrible emotional and mental health problems and we were seeing a, you know, all these different psychologists, psychiatrists and nurses, the whole, you know, that whole area of life that we never kind of thought about really or even known about. That was suddenly our life and it spoilt everything. It really did and every day that I’d wake up the first thing I’d think was, “Oh no, it’s true. This is my life again,” you know. 

Our other children were so scared often that they’d come in, you know, to our room and either sleep at the bottom of the bed and our little one would, you know, try and snuggle in between us. It affected them badly like that. So then you’d have to make allowances for them. You’d be ringing up school teachers and having meetings because somebody was falling behind with their workload or they were crying or, you know, having a spat with another pupil and you’d have to go in and see to that. And then you’ve got obviously, hospital visiting in between and then, as I say, the kind of normal stuff of life that just then becomes much much harder because you’re just so worn out really.
 

For Vicki’s family the impact of her child’s self-harm was like ‘being hit by a sledgehammer’.

For Vicki’s family the impact of her child’s self-harm was like ‘being hit by a sledgehammer’.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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The overall impact has been one of initially, being hit by a sledgehammer [laughs] and it does make other things a little bit harder to deal with because you’re on you’re on this sort of heightened level of stress, even though you know you can really try hard to stay positive, there is still, it’s it does affect everything. It, you do, you do worry, you do think, oh god, what if anything else bad happens? Will it tip them over the edge and, you know, that the thoughts of suicide, that that’s a big worry and just makes you a little bit more sensitive to everything and you feel a bit more protective and questioning of your parenting skills and that kind of thing. So yeah, I think it’s the, it’s a general overall global impact. 

It has it has an effect on everything in the in the family life when you’ve got somebody who’s struggling like that, it’s tough. It makes everyone sort of a little bit more on edge and a little bit your stress levels do rise, yeah, definitely. 
The fear of triggering self-harm made it difficult for families to cope with adolescent behaviour. Debbie told us: ‘She’s a teenager and they all have these strops. We can’t get used to them now so if she goes and strops in her bedroom and goes upstairs, we’re panicking. What’s she doing? Is there something she can harm herself with?’ Tracey struggled with ‘a desperate situation’ where her son’s difficult behaviour affected everyone in the family. Jackie talked about ‘horrific’ fights and family arguments. Charles said the effect on family life was ‘very negative indeed. It makes us all very nervous and anxious ourselves’.
 

Tracey’s son’s behaviour led to family arguments and caused huge stress.

Tracey’s son’s behaviour led to family arguments and caused huge stress.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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And we’re trying to get, you know, we’re trying to get help for him. We’re trying to, you know, he’s being counselled a little bit at he’s having pastoral care at college. But I think he’s just opting out really and just being an extremely difficult person to be around a lot of the time and I’m just kind of hoping that that doesn’t start to manifest itself again with, you know, with more self-harming. If it does, something we have to deal with but I think we, you know, we’re all trying to find a way. We’re all trying to sort of orienteer our way round all these problems without [sighs] with the least possible impact on our son’s sort of sort of, you know, emotional well-being really. And that’s difficult because what you want to do really, what your instinct is often is to get very, very angry, you know. There’s been a lot of angry outbursts lately, quite a bit of shouting, quite a bit of door slamming, storming off and angry text messages and this sort of thing. So that’s another aspect of his young life that we’re now currently dealing with which is causing problems of its own.

Is that him door slamming or you door slamming?

I think all of us are doing it. 

And I just feel as if, you know, there are lots and lots of issues still that are concerning that, as a parent, you can feel that you’re constantly on red alert, I know from my own experience as well that that has led to me becoming very, very stressed and to my husband becoming very stressed.

And us again, dealing with it very differently and perhaps our daughter just feeling resentful, possibly a little neglected maybe and our daughter having troubles of her own at twenty, not having gone to university and trying to secure employment. There are a lot of issues going on for her as well, which all require quite a lot of emotional investment, if you like, which again challenge your reserves and can cause you to become, well, actually, very, very stressed, as I said. So you’re dealing with this stress on a on a daily, weekly basis wondering when if it’s all going to end. And that’s not really how back in the day when I, you know, considered family life, this isn’t really what I’d hoped for but it’s what we’ve got and, you know, we love our children. We want them to grow up as, well, happy, happy, hopefully happy and well-adjusted individuals. That’s what we want. When we go through periods of instability and unhappiness to the extent that, in my son’s case he has with the self-harming, then you just you just worry and you just feel so anxious that, you know, everything is going to turn out all right in the end.
 

The tension for Charles and his wife was ‘like walking on glass’.

The tension for Charles and his wife was ‘like walking on glass’.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Male
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So I think for my wife and myself, the tension has been huge. It’s like walking on glass. You just wait for and dread the telephone call from school saying, “Can you come and take your son home?” Or you dread, you’re constantly trying to monitor his mood and sometimes, to be quite frank, it’s probably ninety five per cent of the time, he’s normal and lovely.

Yes.

But it’s for that five or three per cent of the time, when something triggers this sort of fury and anger, that’s the time, one is just constantly dreading and one feels fairly powerless. 
Tracey realised that when all attention is focused on the person self-harming this can have a negative impact on family relationships: ‘You have to try to still maintain a relationship with your partner, with the other children, because they are struggling with it as well and they’re all dealing with it in different ways.’ 

Sometimes the young person was unaware of the pain they were causing their family. Audrey said her young husband didn’t understand that when he hurts himself ‘he hurts me. That hurts our family’. She acknowledged that he tried to shield their children from his distress. Other young people did realise that they were affecting their family. Debbie’s family were open in expressing their feelings. ‘She knows it worries us,’ Debbie told us, ‘but she tries to reassure us that she would never do anything so risky that she’d have to go to hospital’. 
 

Susan Y dealt with the practical aspects of self-harm without, at first, showing her feelings. Her daughter didn’t realise she was upset.

Susan Y dealt with the practical aspects of self-harm without, at first, showing her feelings. Her daughter didn’t realise she was upset.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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She filled in a well-being questionnaire at CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service] and we had to fill one in. Her and her dad, me and her dad filled it in together and hers, when she filled it in, we were like, can’t believe she even thinks it, “Has it affected your family?” “No.” You know, and things didn’t, and it’s not like they don’t care about me, she had absolutely no insight or concept of the pain it had caused us as parents was like and then when I spoke to her about that, I said, “Well, you know, well, I was very upset, I was hurt.” She said, “Well, you didn’t come across as that. You just dealt with it.” And I thought well, then that’s about me. That’s how I deal with it, that’s how I cope, I deal with things. I needed to deal with the practicalities of it. 
Although families were often challenged and tested by young people's self-harming, some parents also talked about strong relationships within the family that helped them to get through. 'When it's good you enjoy the goodness,' Sandra said, 'when it's bad you work through it as a family.' Jackie thought the family’s sense of humour helped them: ‘We are a close family, we’ve got it through being able to have fun together. We have a right giggle, we’ve got a good sense of humour. Not everyone’s fortunate enough to have that kind of unit. So that’s what’s got us through ultimately.’ Sometimes parents felt that self-harming helped to bring the family closer together.
 

Erica’s wider family were brought together when her daughter self-harmed.

Erica’s wider family were brought together when her daughter self-harmed.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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My parents, my daughter’s grandparents, were completely shocked and, if anything, I found myself having to protect them [sighs] from the feelings because they’re elderly and all that and they were very, very, very distraught. But very supportive at the same time because, when my daughter was in hospital for three months, they rang me up every single evening and they ring from abroad as well. 

They came for about a week but then they had to go back but they called me and said, “How is it going? How was your day? What did they say?” My sister, whom I’d lost touch with for various complicated reasons, she got back in touch immediately, when she heard, and she has been in touch ever since. So in a way, actually, the effect was to bring the family more together than they had been.
 

Liz’s family now communicate better and her daughters are closer.

Liz’s family now communicate better and her daughters are closer.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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I think, if there are any positives to come out of it, which I think you have to look for some kind of positive, we all communicate very much better than I think perhaps we would have done, considering we’re only, we’ve still got a teenager and we’re only just moving through the teenage years, which are notoriously difficult and notoriously turbulent, particularly, I think, I only know about girls, but particularly with girls very turbulent. And I think, coming through all of it there’s, there has emerged a closeness, particularly oddly between the three siblings. They and maybe it would have happened anyway. How do you know? How do you know how they’d have ended up but they are very, very close now.
 

Sandra says it’s important to take one day at a time and let your children know you love them.

Sandra says it’s important to take one day at a time and let your children know you love them.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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So she, it swings about, you know, she still has her good days and her off days but, you know, as parents you just have to take one day at a time. When it’s good, you enjoy the goodness. When it’s bad, you work through it as a family, you know, and you still reassure that child, even when they’ve been nasty and horrible to you, you still let them know you love them. You love them through the pain. You love them through the hurt. I never once said to my daughter I hate her, even when she tells me she hates me, even when she tells me, “I wish you were dead.” I know she doesn’t mean it. It’s because she’s hurting, you know. So I let her know she’s still my princess. I say to her, “You’re Mummy’s princess. You always will be. I love you.” 

You know and everything and so when she’s on a good, when she’s on a good day, you know what she’ll say to me? She’ll say to me, “Mummy, even though I don’t feel like a princess, I know that I’m your princess because you tell me all the time, you know, even when I’m being horrible.” So she knows that, you know, and children, they just need things reaffirming to them, you know. They just need that reassurance. They need stability. They need consistency and one thing I’ve learnt over the years and being a parent myself is being consistent because that has helped me through many difficult situations, yeah.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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