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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Impact of self-harm on siblings

Self-harm by young people can have profound effects on their brothers and sisters. We asked parents and carers to tell us how their other children had reacted.

Parents had to decide how much to tell their other children about the self-harm. This is often very difficult. Jo said she didn’t share all the details with her elder daughter because she felt guilty that her daughter was having to support her. When her younger daughter found knives in her sister’s bedroom Jackie lied to her, saying she needed the knives to open letters or chop up clothes. Ruth and Sandra wanted to make sure their other children didn’t think that self-harm was normal behaviour. Sharon’s son was upset that ‘he hadn’t been there for his sister’ when Sharon told him what had been happening, but she reassured him that it wasn’t his responsibility.
 

Sandra explained to her younger daughter that self-harm was her sister’s way of coping, but told her to talk to her mother if she felt upset rather than copying her sister.

Sandra explained to her younger daughter that self-harm was her sister’s way of coping, but told her to talk to her mother if she felt upset rather than copying her sister.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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Every aspect of her self-harming episodes has been very stressful for the family on the whole. Her younger sister witnessed her self-harming and rushed downstairs and told me once, “Mummy Mummy, my sister is hurting herself.” And for me as a mum, that was difficult but I, you know, and I felt it was even more difficult for my younger daughter witnessing her sister hurting herself. So I had to say to the younger daughter, you know, “Whatever you do, don’t get no ideas. You know, your sister’s hurting. That’s why she’s doing what she’s doing and it’s her way of coping. It’s not the right thing to do but whatever you do, if you’re going through anything, make sure you talk to Mummy about it, don’t  hurt yourself.”
 

At first Ann didn’t tell her other children about their sister’s self-harm because she wanted to protect them.

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At first Ann didn’t tell her other children about their sister’s self-harm because she wanted to protect them.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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Looking back I think we did the wrong thing in keeping everything back from them. In the early days, it was about protecting them and [pause 4 seconds] not letting them see what she was doing to herself. I don’t know why. Maybe because we didn’t understand it ourselves, how can we explain it to the other kids if it if we didn’t understand it ourselves and, obviously, with each hospital admission as they arrive, it that gets a little bit harder. They were a lot younger then as well.
Witnessing self-harm was distressing for brothers and sisters, like Sandra’s daughter. Charles’s son was very upset when his brother cut himself and then called him on his mobile phone. Jane S said her other children were badly affected and often scared. Her younger daughter coped by hiding anything her sister could use for self-harm. Joanne told us that her daughter had to be aware ‘at a very young age’ that the family couldn’t have tablets and razors around. Erica’s daughter was ‘very shaken and very upset’ by her sister’s overdose. Pat said his eleven year old son was ‘in floods of tears’ when he thought his sister had taken another overdose. 

Some brothers and sisters found it hard to understand why their sibling was self-harming, and parents thought this might have influenced their reactions. 
 

Jane S felt that lack of understanding led her other daughters to believe their sister was being selfish and could easily stop her behaviour.

Jane S felt that lack of understanding led her other daughters to believe their sister was being selfish and could easily stop her behaviour.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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I suppose they both, if they were being critical, they would have thought, and they did feel, that she was being selfish. They did think that she could stop it. They had less of an understanding than I managed to get by reading up on the subject and listening to my daughter. They didn’t have that opportunity, if you like, or they didn’t take that opportunity. So they just did what many a parent, I suppose, does and I did in the early days which was just to expect that somebody could sort of snap out of it or pull themselves together or whatever one says about any kind of mental health problem, sadly. That the onus was on the person to stop it and that it was selfish of them to be so self-absorbed and doing this that had an effect, clear effect on everybody. So, they would sometimes be very protective of me and say to her, you know, ‘Can’t you see what this is doing to Mum?’ which I didn’t want them to say, because I thought it was unfair, but also because I was petrified that it might lead her then to go off and self-harm which, of course, it did in the earlier days.

So, it’s a bit of, if you’re not careful it’s a family battlefield, really of the other children, you know, her siblings feeling a bit, maybe, neglected and left out sometimes. You have to work doubly hard to you know, keep everyone happy and it’s exhausting, it really is, absolutely exhausting.
 

Sarah Z’s family didn’t understand her daughter’s self-harm. It was difficult for her brother and sister when they were asked about it at school.

Sarah Z’s family didn’t understand her daughter’s self-harm. It was difficult for her brother and sister when they were asked about it at school.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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I think it’s I think it’s had a really big impact. It’s thrown us all. It’s I’m really conscious of the other children. She’s got an older brother and a younger sister and they’re all chalk and cheese. They’re so different from each other but it’s been horrible for them, particularly for her younger sister, who is completely different and really sensitive and hates any kind of attention or fuss. 

And, obviously, this kind of behaviour brings attention and fuss and also, you know, it’s very difficult because despite the fact that they have all the normal sibling kind of squabbles and everything, they’re quite close in age and, obviously, they’re fond of each other and it’s horrible, really horrible to see somebody hurting themselves and have no idea why they’re doing it or, you know, why we can’t stop her doing it and why, you know, why she’s that unhappy in an apparently, perfectly normal family, you know, but with nothing really to make her that unhappy that they can see. So it’s very confusing for the children the other children and also for my husband and I because we don’t know anything about it, you know. We don’t know how to deal with it. We don’t know how to cope with it. We, even more so my husband actually, it just doesn’t, understand it at all so and when you don’t understand something that much, it makes it almost impossible to do anything to help really.

So you tend to sort of ignore it as much as you can, which is really unhelpful. Doesn’t work, so and it’s had a big impact because all the children go to the same school and there’s no hiding that that kind of self-harm. It’s on, you know, it’s on [my daughter], on her arms and and it was on her legs as well. She did she did do it on her legs too. So she’d still be doing sport and she’d be doing, playing in, she was quite sporty, she’d be playing in netball matches or whatever in her sports short skirt, and with her short sleeves on and, you know, she’s covered in in cuts and so people know that, you know, you can’t hide it. And it’s that’s difficult for her brother and sister too, you know, because children being children will ask, generally they’re nice, but they’ll ask questions. They’ll want to know what’s happening and, you know, they don’t really know how to answer so it puts them in the spotlight a bit too at school.
‘He didn’t understand it’, Alexis said of her son. ‘It’s a very emotional thing and maybe some men are not at that emotional level where they can understand. I think he felt she should pull herself together and stop it.’ Wendy thought her son’s angry reaction was partly because he didn’t understand his sister: ‘Her brother just could not cope with what she was doing. It freaked him out. He outwardly was angry with her and gave her verbal abuse, because he didn’t understand what was going on.’

Several parents told us about the anger expressed by their other children. Some siblings thought the person who was self-harming was selfish and attention seeking. Fiona’s son and daughter wouldn’t talk to their brother because they were so angry at his behaviour. They were also angry that their mother had gone into debt through supporting him financially. Bernadette’s son was so angry with his brother that he started a fight with him. He accused his brother of breaking his mother’s heart. Fiona and Jane S told us that their children too had been angry at the effect of the self-harm on their mother.
 

Sandra’s daughter was so angry that she wanted to attack her sister but Sandra encouraged her to release her anger in other ways.

Sandra’s daughter was so angry that she wanted to attack her sister but Sandra encouraged her to release her anger in other ways.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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What impact has it had on her younger sister?

[Sighs] I would say it’s impacted on my younger daughter adversely as well because my daughter went through a period where she became quite angry, sullen, you know, would just get into rages and fits of anger. She’d direct some of that anger at her older sister and she’d just attack her and hit her and say, “I hate you. I hate you.” So then I would say to her, “No, you don’t hate your sister. You’re angry. You’re angry because she’s, you’ve witnessed things that you shouldn’t have seen. She’s exposed you to things that you shouldn’t have been exposed to but by virtue of being a member of the family, you’ve seen them, you’ve witnessed them and you’ve been party to it but,” I said to her, “It’s all right to be angry.” 

So what I did, I bought my younger daughter a punching bag so if she’s angry I say, “You get that bag and just punch at it, you know, release some of that anger.” You know, so she said, “Well, thanks Mum.” And I got her gloves as well, you know, [laughs] so I said, “Rather than hurting your sister, punch at the punching bag but release the anger, release the aggression, don’t keep it inside. If you feel like you want to cry, cry.” So she’s if she’s having a temper tantrum, I just let her cry and I said, you know, “Just let it out, release it but don’t keep it inside because if you do it will make you ill.”

So, you know, I said to her, “But, at the same time, don’t cry for anything, you know. Cry because you’ve got a reason. Cry because you’re not, you’re not happy or you’re feeling sad about something or your sister has said something to you and she’s hurt you, you know, but don’t just cry for the sake of crying because.” I said, “After a while, you’ll become like the crying wolf. The boy who always cried and then, when he was seriously in trouble, no one paid no attention because they got used to him making those noises, you know.” So I think she got the message [laughs]. Yeah.
Parents were aware that their other children sometimes felt neglected. Erica said her older daughter ‘was almost ignored’ for two years because her needs didn’t seem as great as her sister’s. Susan Z thought her daughter felt that over the years her sister got all the attention. Jo admitted that her older daughter got ‘pushed aside’. Charles and Gwendoline told us how their daughters had to make allowances for their sibling’s behaviour.
 

Jane Z realised it was easy for siblings to ‘get lost’ when all attention focused on the person who self-harmed.

Jane Z realised it was easy for siblings to ‘get lost’ when all attention focused on the person who self-harmed.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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So, I think it must be very, very easy in this situation for siblings to get lost for, for parental sort of, attention, to be absolutely on, and we’ve had angry spells with my eldest daughter, who doesn’t get angry at all, and where it’s, she feels very guilty, feeling like it, but it’s, “What about me?” You know, all this attention on, you know, everything youngest daughter wants, she gets, you know, whereas.

Yes.

“Look at me. What am I going to have?” you know, this sort of thing, and she knows why, and she understands why and she never says it, never blames, you know, but you can see, there’s a sort of, “Come on, I’m seventeen.”

Yes.

[Laughs] And she is, and she, she deserves everything in the world, and so she is putting things on hold, and she is, obviously, struggling and, she doesn’t want to worry us with her problems, and, you know, so you’ve got to keep an eye on all of the children.
 

Charles pleaded with his 12 year old daughter to avoid annoying her brother.

Charles pleaded with his 12 year old daughter to avoid annoying her brother.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Male
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Can you say a bit about the impact that this has had on the family sort of both emotionally and practically and socially?

The first point I’d make is it has been explained to me how completely selfish people are in this sort of mental state that the patient has absolutely no apparent concern for the effect his behaviour has on his younger siblings, who are at a very impressionable age, fourteen and twelve. And there has been a very deep effect. I mean it is particularly, well, on both of them, the twelve year old says things like, “Well.” We try to say to them, “Please don’t, try not to annoy him because we don’t know what’s happened. He suffers from something called depression and anything might happen.” And so this poor girl has to bite her tongue and feels very constrained about what she can say or do with her brother and so it’s a great worry for her, and I think possibly she’s more grumpy and bad tempered than perhaps a twelve year old girl would normally be as a result of this stress. 
A few parents spoke about further effects on their children. Her sister’s self-harming put such stress on Joanne’s daughter that she had to take time off sick from school. Joanne emphasised the need to support siblings as well as parents. She hoped the school would provide something, but there was nothing at all. Jane S said her daughters were affected so badly that she had to make allowances for them, contacting their school when they were upset, falling behind with work or arguing with other pupils. Joanna and Liz’s other daughters themselves started self-harming.

Although brothers and sisters had mixed responses to their sibling’s self-harm, many of them were sympathetic and supportive. Ruth, Gwendoline, and Jane Z described close, loving relationships. Sharon told us her son was ‘there for his sister’, supporting her and making her laugh, which was good for her. Some parents, like Liz and Ann, spoke of positive effects, such as becoming closer as a family and more aware of other people’s feelings.
 

Although there were mixed reactions to self-harm, Liz’s family became closer and communicated better.

Although there were mixed reactions to self-harm, Liz’s family became closer and communicated better.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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So the effect of the self-harm, [sighs] it’s very difficult to say. Certainly, it’s made her younger sister, she’s had periods of extreme anger, extreme anger both with how her sister was and why she felt that it was okay to behave that way. 

And periods of extreme insecurity when she first moved away to London, the one that was left at home was saying, “How do you know she’s okay? How do you know she’s going, is she going to be okay and shouldn’t you be ringing her every day?” And a completely over the top reaction. Normally, I’m sure, when a sister, one goes to university it’s like, “Yes, I I’m at home on my own and how great is that.” But very insecure. 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.
 

Debbie’s son and daughter reacted differently to their sister’s self-harm.

Debbie’s son and daughter reacted differently to their sister’s self-harm.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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Yes, and what about her younger siblings?

Yeah, my youngest daughter is quite the opposite to her really. She’s outgoing and confident. She doesn’t seem to be fazed by it and she can talk openly about it. She’s not they, we all know, obviously. We’ve never kept it from them. They know that she self-harms and my youngest daughter will talk to her and say, “Have you self-harmed? Are you feeling down today?” But my son, on the other hand, he is very much like his dad and closed up and he doesn’t like talking about it and he’s got an issue because they both went to schools next door to each other and there’s only two years between them.  So a lot of their friends are brothers and sisters as well.

Right. Yes.

And that’s caused an issue because my son won’t say to any of his friends what his sister, where his sister’s been, when she’s been in hospital for six months, and there’s been a big issue because he’s just kept the whole thing secret so none of his friends know. He doesn’t talk about it because he thinks that people will bully him if they say, “Oh your sister self-harms.” Or anything. They’ve been swimming a few times but he won’t go swimming with them and my daughter thinks it’s because he’s embarrassed of the scars because if his friends were about, they might ask him what’s gone on. So that’s quite difficult between them two.
 

Ann is proud of the way her children have ‘embraced their sister’ and become more aware of other people’s feelings.

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Ann is proud of the way her children have ‘embraced their sister’ and become more aware of other people’s feelings.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I think the middle child never says very much but thinks a lot and just takes everything in his stride and, you know, he just try and be open, say, “Look, you know, talk to us if you if you if something is bothering you, then just say it.” The younger one, she I think resents the fact that we didn’t tell them what was going on at the outset but she would have been very young [pause 5 seconds] and I think now that she’s an adolescent herself she she’s got a good insight, doesn’t always understand why her sister does things that she does but there again, they don’t know what we know. 

And I actually think that because this has come into their lives and our lives, it’s made them a bit more grounded and a bit more aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings and certainly, you know, other youngsters that are self-harming and their parents seem to be in the same sort of fog as you like, you know, as they find out that their daughter, I only know of girls that have done that, I don’t know boys, but what, you know, where does it all start and why does it all start. 

 But I’m very proud of the way that the other two have got friends who are struggling with issues and problems and sometimes, when I listen to them talking, you know, you think, I’m very proud actually because they’re giving sound advice. They’re listening. Kids today, you know, youngsters they, I don’t know, a lot of horrible things can be said in the blink of an eye and whatever but these two kids seem very sensitive and receptive to other friends who are talking to them. And certainly will try and offer solutions and they’re not frightened of actually coming to me and their dad and saying, “So and so is thinking this, so and so, what can I do to help? Where can I go? Who can, you know, where shall I tell them to ring?” 

And that that’s the good the good side. I’m very proud of them the way that they’ve embraced their sister. They don’t judge their sister. They don’t understand why she does what she does I don’t think but, like I said, they’re not aware of everything. But as, you know, the advert goes, it’s good to talk and these two kids have really adopted that and we do, we have some very open conversations in our household and quite uncomfortable topics and issues and it’s fine. I wouldn’t want it any other way because I think as the eldest one started with all of this, “I don’t understand why she’s never able to come and talk to us about it and nobody has ever come to us and explained.” So now no no subject is taboo in this household. We talk about anything and everything and I think my kids have helped other kids out there, you know. Time will tell.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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