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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Emotional reactions to self-harm

People we spoke to told us they experienced a range of emotions when a young person was self-harming. Many were shocked and horrified at first. When Susan Y saw her daughter’s wounds she was ‘visibly shocked, very, very shocked that I’d not even noticed it. I’d not even seen it, I’d not seen the triggers, I’d not seen the signs or anything’. Gwendoline felt physically sick and stunned when she realised her daughter had started cutting again. Jane S said she was ‘beside herself with worry and shock and upset’.
 

When she discovered her daughter was harming herself Sharon felt sick. Then she gave her a cuddle.

When she discovered her daughter was harming herself Sharon felt sick. Then she gave her a cuddle.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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Just going back to the beginning again, how did you react when you discovered that she’d been harming herself?

First feeling was my stomach dropped and I felt sick and I thought, oh no, it’s really that bad. What’s happened that’s that bad? Why has she felt the need to do this? What have I done? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why couldn’t she come to me? Why couldn’t she talk about it? What could I have done to make things different so she hadn’t felt the need? How long has it been going on? How bad is it? Where else is it? Is it entrenched? You know, has this just been a little, not dabble, that’s the wrong word, but a first, a first try or a first few, which I thought at the time it had been just a few, and then found out later, no, it was an ongoing thing. Yeah, I was upset. I tried not to be openly upset with her because I know that makes her feel worse that she’s upset me. I wasn’t angry with her or disappointed. I, I just said that I felt it was, it was sad that she’d felt the need, that she had to do that and nothing else had helped and that she couldn’t turn to somebody. And how she was feeling and had it been recent and I didn’t ask her what she’d used, at that point. I thought I’d leave that until, that wasn’t relevant at that time, just how she felt about it. What had, what had been the reasoning behind it? Would it, had it been sat and thought about or was it spur of the moment thing? That sort of thing really and then gave her a cuddle.
 

Jackie was horrified to find her daughter had self-harmed.

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Jackie was horrified to find her daughter had self-harmed.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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And then I was just I think shock, horror, absolute horror. I was completely horrified and shocked. It took my breath away, completely took my breath away. I knew things, I knew things weren’t so good, just because she was being a typical, what we’d call a typical teenager, you know, staying out late, coming home, you know, hours, you know, later, you know, not answering her phone. We’d go to pick her up, you know, that was the deal, “You go here, we’ll pick you up”. She wouldn’t be there. You know, coming home absolutely trolleyed, drinking, just the usual shenanigans. So that I suppose, you know, you would, she’d come home drunk and then you’d go, “All right, I’m over that shock. Right, it’s on to the next thing. What’s, w-, what’s in line next?” you know.

And that I think topped them all really. A-, a-, a-, absolutely horrified. And then she was horrified, she was horrified that, with herself as well I suppose. She was embarrassed, you know, when I said to her, “Look, what is this?” because she saw my reaction. Which was just, I was stunned, I think for once I was actually speechless. And then I, I said, you know, “What, what’s going on here?
The distress to families can be immense. It nearly broke Bernadette’s heart that her son could hate himself so much. ‘At the time,’ Annette explained, ‘you’re so distressed and distraught, it’s hard to think.’ Alexis felt that she was ‘becoming totally crazy.’ Audrey told us about the strain that her husband’s self-harm had placed on the family, and admitted she had been very angry. Anger was a common emotion for the people we spoke to. 
 

Her husband’s self-harm was very stressful for Audrey. She was angry that she had to lie to their children about it.

Her husband’s self-harm was very stressful for Audrey. She was angry that she had to lie to their children about it.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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It does take time and it takes effort on everyone’s part. It’s not just the person who’s self-harming but, don’t get me wrong, it’s hard for people like myself, you know, just to be supportive of my husband. It’s very, very hard and, don’t get me wrong, there’s been a good few times when I have just thought to myself, [phew] someone else can do this because I’ve had enough, you know. 

It’s really, really, it is it’s mentally draining as well as physically draining and it’s hard because you have to keep a smile on your face twenty four seven, even when everything is all going pear shaped all around you, you feel like your whole world is about to fall apart and you have to keep smiling, especially if you’ve got children. You can’t let them know that anything is wrong. You can’t let them know that your, that their world as they know it nearly came to an end, you know, and sometimes you do have to lie. You have to lie in the sense of when our youngest had saw, sorry, when our eldest had saw my husband’s legs when they were all bandaged. She had asked, “What’s happened to daddy?” And we just said, “Oh, it was a football accident. Daddy fell at football and he cut his legs.” And, you know, you have to tell wee white lies like that but then at times I was getting so angry because I thought I shouldn’t have to lie, you know. You shouldn’t have done this. You shouldn’t have done this because you have got children and you shouldn’t have put me in a position where I’m having to lie to my children because of what you’ve done, you know. 

So there are there are times where I feel really angry that I’m then put in a position where I have to do something that I don’t want to do. But it’s all about understanding. It’s all about understanding the illness because it is an illness and it’s about learning to cope with it
 

Nicky was angry about her daughter’s self-harming.

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Nicky was angry about her daughter’s self-harming.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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And I know this probably doesn’t sound like an appropriate therapeutic response, but given the nature of her illness and his knowledge of it, when I picked her up from the police station the following day, you know, she’s like got her arms all bandaged up to the elbows and everything. And they weren’t deep. That that was the thing, I think that was one of things that made me very cross, her self-harming makes me cross a lot. It makes me angry and upset but mostly it makes me cross. It makes me cross that she does that to herself. She’s a she’s a beautiful young woman. Really, she is inside and out and to see her do so much damage to herself is something I find distressing to the point of being very angry about it. 
 

Isobel was angry at first but tried to be supportive of her daughter.

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Isobel was angry at first but tried to be supportive of her daughter.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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I felt very protective towards her. But also, I’ll admit, especially the first time, really quite frustrated and annoyed. 

I have to be honest, I was quite annoyed that she’d done it and angry because I was felt that there were there were other things she could have done because I did feel, at that time, that it was cry for help. It wasn’t a serious, there wasn’t serious intent because of the amounts of tablets but, nevertheless, I was supportive and I kept sort of softening, sort of going through a range of emotions, which hopefully I didn’t project particularly but I tried to show her the soft side and sort of very supportive and I was very tactile with her as I always am. 
Alexis was also angry with her child and said ‘I felt angry at her for doing it to me. I mean she wasn’t doing it to me… she did it to herself but, at that time, your emotions are saying “How can you do this?”’ Other parents were angry about mismanagement of their child’s care or people who had caused distress for their child. Sandra was angry with God. ‘There were times when I was angry’, she told us, ‘I have a faith but there were times I couldn’t pray. I used to say, “God, why? Why? Why my daughter? She’s been through so much already. Couldn’t you just do something or intervene or stop her doing it?”’ Some parents tried to hide their anger. Ann was angry at first, but decided this was not helpful. ‘We don’t judge her. There’s no point getting angry or cross. You can cry in your own time, when you’re on your own and there’s nobody else about.’ 

Another common theme was anxiety and fear that their child might die by suicide. (See also ‘Fears and worries’). ‘I remember becoming really scared’, Alexis told us, “Is she going to do it again? Can I keep her safe?” I had even, in my head, I knew what my daughter’s funeral was going to be like.’ Annette said she was on 24-hour red alert and was so anxious she couldn’t sleep. Although some people who self-harm may die by suicide, this is very rare.
 

Jane Z was afraid for her daughter but she tried not to focus on the harming.

Jane Z was afraid for her daughter but she tried not to focus on the harming.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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We didn’t leave her on her own in the house at all. We did keep an eye but, you know, it’s so damaging when a young person feels they’re being watched all the time.

And feels that, so it’s really, really hard and you do go to bed every night wondering whether, when you do wake up in the morning, she’s still going to be there and it’s awful for weeks on end. But, you know, for some families, the worst is going to happen but my feeling is that you you’ve got to concentrate on removing the feelings that make the harming necessary.

You’ve got to not focus on the harming at all as a problem in itself. It’s a result of their feelings. It’s not something that the child can control at all and you shouldn’t try to make them control it. You can’t say, when they go to bed at night, “Don’t do it, don’t harm yourself tonight.” All you can say is, “Hey, you know, try and sleep, relax.”
Most of the parents we talked to had felt guilty when their child self-harmed, perhaps feeling bad that they had not noticed their child’s distress or done something to prevent self-harm. Others blamed themselves for things like the breakup of a marriage which might have made their child unhappy, or questioned their early parenting skills. Two parents felt guilty that they might have passed on genes to their children which made them more likely to self-harm. People talked about their sense of shame and thinking they were a failure as a parent.
 

Joanna felt a failure when her daughter self-harmed and worried that she had been a bad mother.

Joanna felt a failure when her daughter self-harmed and worried that she had been a bad mother.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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So if we can go to what it’s been like for you. I mean when you first found out about it. How did you feel then?

Failure. Absolutely failure. Haven’t protected my daughter from some kind of mental damage that she has to escape to these kind of actions. From the very beginning, when I was pregnant with her, what did I do wrong? Did I eat the wrong things? Did I get too stressed? When I was young, did I feed her properly? Did I interact with her? When she was older, did I praise her enough? Did I give her positive encouragement and good stuff? Did I criticise her too much? Did I hit her too much? All the times, since she was conceived, I was looking for a moment where I could have caused it and I I am still firmly convinced that if I did something else, that would not have happened and that’s my feeling and I see the counsellor at work, when I need to, and he’s excellent and he’s great. He helped a lot but I still have this I have nurtured and moulded this person, so if she behaves in that way, that must have been something that I did or did not do. And this is extremely difficult and I know that she’s an adult now and she takes responsibility for her choices and I can be only supporting her but that was very, very difficult, the blame.

The guilt.
 

Jo blamed herself for her daughter’s problems.

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Jo blamed herself for her daughter’s problems.

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It’s it’s horrendous and you feel it’s all your fault. I think being a mum or a dad is full of guilt anyway and then, when you find out that, first of all, your child has problems that you can’t cure or control or take care of but also then that part of that problem is that they they do this to themselves, it just makes it immeasurably worse. You you you worry that it’s your fault. You worry that you can’t deal with it. You worry that people will stigmatise you for it. Do you talk to people about it or do you keep it quiet? Sometimes my daughter didn’t even want to tell me she’d done it, at the time, and then would tell me subsequently and it’s a it’s a big shock.

But what I was having to try and control was my culpability in the whole thing, that I didn’t want to be blamed any more than I felt I was being blamed already.

And I don’t know who was blaming me because the only person that blamed me was myself but I just felt it was all my fault and it was then all my fault that family life was awful and it was all, it was just everything was all my fault all the time. So that was what it was.

And she tells me that I should have realised but I had no idea at all at the time. Sometimes, when I look back now I think were there any warning signs because I think, you know, still as a mother, you want to find a reason and you want to see, is it where I’ve gone wrong? Did I not wean her early enough? Did I not give her the right foods? Did I nappy train her too early? There’s always something you can as-, you know, blame yourself about. 
However, many had come to terms with their feelings of guilt: Tracey learnt through counselling that it was better to focus on what you can do rather than what you think you’ve done wrong. Alexis thought that guilt about the past was pointless as it didn’t help her be a good mother or a balanced person. Nicky’s Samaritan training enabled her to distance herself from feelings of guilt.
 

Dot’s feelings of guilt about her daughter’s self-harm eventually passed.

Dot’s feelings of guilt about her daughter’s self-harm eventually passed.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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Yes, it’s a hell of an impact. It’s like you never think you’re a perfect parent, you’re always questioning judgements that you make and things that you do, but when you hear that your child that you think is happy is not happy, to the point where they, their self-esteem is so low. I mean I don’t think she would have ever committed, um considered suicide, but you’re looking around those sort of lines of low self-esteem and self-worth where they don’t value their lives at all. And you just think that’s, that’s terrible. You know, it just makes you feel a complete, not failure, but, well, I suppose that’s one word for it. But definitely guilt sets in. You really do start thinking, “What have I done? Where have I failed her? Where have, you know, what could I have done differently?” 

I think that goes with time. I think looking back now I can say, “Okay, we did our best. We weren’t perfect parents. We certainly weren’t bad parents.” And she was a young teenager, she was making her way in life and of course she did lots of things on her own. I don’t know what brought this on or whether it was going to happen, whether it was anything to do with us. But if it was, it was just ordinary families going on in ordinary ways. So I don’t feel that guilt thing anymore. But I remember the feeling of it. I remember it now. And you just keep thinking, “What could I have done differently? You know, how could I have changed this?” But I’m not sure I could, because I don’t know why it happened. And maybe that’s why it will stick, because it’s an unanswered question. Maybe.
 

Her training as a Samaritan helped Nicky deal with her feelings of guilt.

Her training as a Samaritan helped Nicky deal with her feelings of guilt.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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I think being, using the skills I’ve learned as a Samaritan for not getting emotionally involved with callers’ problems, has probably been the one thing that’s saved my sanity and kept us together. That ability to be able to take a step back from it and to kind of go, “This is really difficult but it’s her decision and I can’t make her stop.” That that has that has helped, it’s helped deal with some of the guilt that I think you feel as a parent, when you see your child purposely hurting themselves and wondering how much of that’s your fault or your responsibility or what you should have done differently to stop it happening or to or to stop it starting. All those really difficult, painful, hard emotions that you get as a parent and I think for me that little bit of distance was the thing that that helped me not to beat myself up quite as much as I might have had a tendency to had I not had those skills in place. Because I’m very good at beating myself up. 
Several parents talked about feeling bewildered and confused. Nick said his first reaction was that it couldn’t really be happening. He felt ‘incredibly helpless’ and ‘absolutely clueless in terms of what you should do, what the next steps are.’ Sarah Y told a doctor when her daughter was admitted after an overdose: ‘I don’t know what to feel because I’m at a loss as to why she’s done it. I just cannot work out what’s going on inside her head.’ Sarah felt totally bewildered. It was upsetting that she couldn’t help and didn’t know what to do. 
 

Susan Z felt scared and confused when she discovered that her daughter was cutting herself.

Susan Z felt scared and confused when she discovered that her daughter was cutting herself.

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
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How did you feel at that time and what sort of impact did it have on you?

Well, very, very scared and confused because somebody cutting themselves, oh it’s just beyond, you know, and I supposed a little bit like the doctor, you know, I I was aware that it was going to, it was going to leave scars and she wouldn’t she wouldn’t like that but also that it was dangerous and very confused as to why somebody would put themselves through physical pain and deformity or, you know, defacement to feel better. It - so confused and scared and guilty because, you know, again you think is it something that I’m not doing right that’s making her do this? And the fact that she didn’t come to me before she did this and, you know, work it out that way rather than. And very sad, you know, that that she, that that was her only way to get some sort of release. I mean, you know, that she didn’t have friends she could talk to, that she couldn’t talk to her sister, that she couldn’t talk to us.

Or that she didn’t see that would help.
 

Pat felt confused and kept asking himself what he could have done differently.

Pat felt confused and kept asking himself what he could have done differently.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
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Horrid, horrid and confusing. I think when they first tell you or you first find out all chaps naturally think, why?

Which is the world’s most unhelpful question because the answer is because they can, because they did and yeah, you just think why for a long time. What did I do? What didn’t I do? What could I have done? What should I have done? And they never get answered I don’t think and time goes very slowly and I became paranoid then. Every time my daughter went, not missing, but went upstairs to the toilet you know, anything after five minutes, “What are you at? What are you doing?”

And it was a long couple of weeks, really long, very dark, very lonely, very hard to find someone to talk to, who could understand because who understands? I don’t know. Sorry to go round and round.

Yes.

I just kept going back to why and my daughter doesn’t know why and until you can overcome that you don’t really go anywhere and now I just look at it, she did because she did, she did because she could, she did it because she was unhappy, really really tough. I’ve got some younger children and they were asking some really difficult questions and, all of a sudden, it’s not just you or you and your daughter or whoever, the whole family is involved in.

Very, very emotional. It’s a bit like a bereavement.

But, obviously, well luckily, my little girl is alive but you, like a ber- what should you have done? What could you have done? And you just go round and round and round and trying to find an escape is very difficult. Sorry.

No. That’s.

Doesn’t make a lot of sense any of that answer but it’s just the weirdest feeling.

Yes.

Total lack of control, total lack of understanding and, like most parents, you go through life going, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right. Don’t worry. I’ll look after that. I’ll sort that out.” And suddenly you can’t.

You just have no knowledge about what they’re understanding. Luckily, she does talk to me and we talk about it but it hasn’t improved my knowledge at all, really horrid.
Even though they were struggling with many different emotions, parents tried to hide their feelings from their child. Liz reacted practically when bandaging her daughter’s cuts, but afterwards she ‘fell apart’. Anna said there was no point screaming and shouting at her daughter because that wasn’t going to work and it was clear that she needed some help. Roisin tried to appear calm when her daughter described her cutting to a doctor, but was ‘screaming inside’. She said the last thing her daughter needed was ‘some hysterical woman crying uncontrollably saying “Why do you do these terrible things?”’ Joanne has gone through so much that she now feels numb: ‘Actually, I don’t get upset anymore because I’m just numb so I just get on. I don’t forget about my daughter but forget all the things that she’s done and just keep looking forwards because that’s all I can do.’
 

Although Joanna did show her disappointment, she didn’t shout or criticise her daughter.

Although Joanna did show her disappointment, she didn’t shout or criticise her daughter.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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When I first found out about my daughter’s self-harming, I was very, very worried. I thought that it was behaviour similar to drug taking on a scale of wrongness. And I didn’t shout at her, criticise her but I tried to cajole her not to do it and try to stop her and try, and show her how disappointed I am, when you know, she showed me the injuries. And then, because I couldn’t cope with worries about it, I went to see a counsellor through my work, who, it was a very enlightened moment. He explained to me that this is a release. That it’s better that than some really very harming behaviour like suicide attempts or some other behaviour that creates that release that I could help her in other ways, provide safe ways of doing it. So I then became so proud of myself because I was being modern and helpful [laughs].
 

When Tracey was able to put her own emotions aside it helped her son.

When Tracey was able to put her own emotions aside it helped her son.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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I think that having got over the initial shock of it all and kind of hoping that it was a bit of one off, I kind of, we kind of settled into, well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen again or he might, you know, he might be able to sort of come through this. It did happen again and I did overreact and I was angry and I called him a stupid boy. It was it was my own feelings of anger and frustration coming out that he could actually do this to himself and, as his parent, standing by and actually watching that hurt me physically and emotionally, perhaps in a similar way to how it had it had actually hurt my son.

And I can see now, looking at that, that it didn’t help at all and that the advice is right and I think the next time I dealt with it, I just, when I noticed, because again he does try, he has tried to hide it a lot of the time, when I did notice, I just said, “Oh, you know, I see there are some marks on your arm again, you know. Do you want to do you want to talk about it?” And handled it much better because I do think that if you can if you can try as a parent to contain your own anger and emotions or upset, fear, frustration, sadness. It’s a very, very sad thing. I felt very sad and really sad to see my son suffering physically in this way and finding, you know, finding clothes with blood on them. It’s very, very sad but if you, you know, as a parent, if you can try to put your own emotions aside and not judge as well the young person, I feel that really does help. And that might have helped us to get to a position where my son has been able to be a little more open about this with us. We’re a long way from being out of the woods altogether, I would say, but I think we’re in a different place to where we were.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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