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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Influence of friends and peers on self-harm

Self-harm is very common in young people, and having friends who self-harm can influence others to do this. Parents we talked to were aware of this: Susan Y said she was shocked at how many people in her daughter’s school self-harmed. Ann told us that self-harm was rife in schools and thought that children should be taught how to problem-solve. 
 

Sharon talks about the increase in self-harm in young people and the need to tackle it.

Sharon talks about the increase in self-harm in young people and the need to tackle it.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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And friends, could you just talk a bit about what your thoughts are about this idea, which is kind of out there in some people, that self-harm is a kind of a contagious thing among teenagers and that they learn it from each other and so on?

I think there’s certainly an element of some, and, and the minority I would say that would do it for that, oh people do this for attention. It does exist. There are people out there that do that and they are the ones that will sit there and go, “Oh, look at me. Look what I did. Look what’s happened.” And I think that’s what people tag on to, the media or whatever. That’s the idea that everybody does it just to say, “Look at me.” And I think there’s, there’s an awful lot of it out there. There’s an awful lot. It’s, it’s, it’s growing because of the pressures of society I think, it’s just this is what our young people are starting to do because that’s, that’s what they can do. I don’t, certainly, I don’t think it’s catching. I think that, in a way, there are sort of ideas that can be bandied about between, “Oh well, so and so does this.” Not necessarily to think, “Oh well yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll start doing it.” But it’s, it’s much more widely known that a lot of people have this sort of issue and have this sort of coping strategy, whether it’s healthy or not, there’s a lot of it’s about there and if a lot of it’s about there, then it’s not going to be encouraging to other people but they’re going to feel not as bad, I think, maybe in a way. A small comfort that they’re not the only ones. Whether that encourages it or not I, I couldn’t say, but I think society in general has still got this view of, “Oh well, you’ve got to be a complete weirdo or lunatic to do something like that.” Or it’s only certain sections of society or types of teenager that do this. It’s a teenage problem. It’s the ones that want attention. It’s the, it’s the bad kids and it’s not like that at all and it needs a lot more people to realise that and then maybe a lot more young people can find help before it gets to that stage, before it becomes ingrained that this is something they have to do. It’s the only thing that helps and try and stop it before, nip it in the bud, so to speak.
 

Joanne knew about the ‘craze’ for self-harm among children but felt that her daughter’s self-harm was more about coping with problems.

Joanne knew about the ‘craze’ for self-harm among children but felt that her daughter’s self-harm was more about coping with problems.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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And did she know other people who were doing that sort of thing?

No, as far as I know, I don’t think so but I’ve since found out it is a lot more common than what we think it is speaking to the community mental health nurse. She says she’s just inundated with children that are self-harming and it’s almost as if it’s a bit of a craze but, in my daughter’s case, it wasn’t, it was not a craze. This was to help her overcome or get through the trauma that she’d been through.

So there’s, to me, there seems like there’s two forms of self-harm. There is this craze going round but there is also the very disturbed who are using it just to get through.
Several parents definitely linked their child’s self-harm with seeing similar behaviour in other young people. Nicky said that self-harming was ‘almost like a badge of honour’ in her daughter’s circle. She thought her daughter was drawn towards other girls like her, who found cutting a way of coping. Ruth worried that even if her daughter was ready to stop harming herself, she would be influenced by her peer group to continue. Sarah Z, Nick, Annette and Nicky spoke about teenage Goth or Emo culture which focused on the darker side of life. Sharon (see clip above) did not see self-harm as ‘catching’, but did think it was becoming more acceptable. Vicki’s daughter had told her she felt most like self-harming when she was worried about a suicidal friend. Suicide is very much rarer than self-harm. Three parents told us about a suicide in their child’s friendship group. 
 

Annette’s son’s lifestyle, music and film tastes ‘were all very dark and dour’.

Annette’s son’s lifestyle, music and film tastes ‘were all very dark and dour’.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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Yeah, he kind of went through various different stages and I suppose the first stage was the lower mood oh, and the withdrawal, you know, withdrawal of life and things like that. But then the second stage for me was the change, the change in the physical demeanour, you know, with his not eating he got very thin. He changed his hair. His hair became long and he darkened it, and he made it very dark and black. Like his lifestyle, the music, his music and film tastes they were all very dark and dour, you know, and he sort of familiarised with anything that was very negative. He had quite a morbid fascination, which he didn’t have before, and I suppose he could relate to that in some ways because he was feeling negative in himself.
 

Susan Y’s daughter was asked to befriend a group of pupils who were self-harming. Susan worries about the impact this has on her.

Susan Y’s daughter was asked to befriend a group of pupils who were self-harming. Susan worries about the impact this has on her.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I started to do a lot of research into self-harming myself and tried to understand it myself and I listened to a lot of young people’s blogs online and things like that and I concluded really partly myself, is actually it is to do with the pressure and a release mechanism. But they were putting her, school were, because she is a very sensible girl and because she’s a caring girl, what they’d done is they’d asked her to sort of befriend other young people in the school that didn’t have any friends, so she was sort of take, “Come on, come for lunch with me.” 

And it transpired that there was a number of people in the school that were self-harming, that there were a number of them that were in this group and she’d become part of, and I’m not saying and I’m not blaming any other young person whatsoever, she, whatever is the choice she made to choose to do that on that day and over those days for whatever reason to release what were needed to be released. But the other young people, nobody knew about and nobody found out about, so she was taking on their burdens and they were confiding in her to do it and she didn’t want to break their confidence. 

These other friends are still doing it. She took a teacher, she took a friend to a teacher the other day because she’d cut her fingers. Yet I just feel the school aren’t dealing with it as a as a problem in the school, not because I think there’s some, you know, cult or anything in the school, I just think the way the school is and the expectations and the pressure and all of that and it’s, there’s a number of people in her year doing it. Which is interesting because it’s not the group that she’s part of. So I thought, “Oh is it because they’re all in it together.” But no, it’s not. 

It’s like she’s taken on now the, not the responsibility, but there’s other young people at school doing it and it’s like, but now she’s talking about it. Now she’ll come home and tell me that somebody else is doing it, that she’s told a teacher and that’s, and I’m able now to say, “Well, that’s their responsibility. You’ve informed who you need to inform. This is not your responsibility.” And I’ve sort of done the work. So at times at times, it’s really hard because I’m like all the time because it’s still very, although she’s not involved in the behaviour anymore, the issues are still there. The reality of other people doing it are still there so I am sort of talking and every day about how she can manage this for her friends really and how the thoughts of it impacts upon her 
 

Tracey’s son was very upset by a friend’s suicide but she hopes he will realise that suicide isn’t the answer.

Tracey’s son was very upset by a friend’s suicide but she hopes he will realise that suicide isn’t the answer.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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And now, in recent months, a boy that he knew from a group of school friends actually did take his own life and our son ended up getting very, very upset, upset doesn’t seem to, you know, it’s not sufficient a word to say. It was just a, for the young people involved it was a really traumatic distressing time and a big shock and they were laying tributes down locally at a sort of , they had like a memorial spot for him. And my son also went to the funeral and there is someone who actually carried this, you know, they actually carried it through and took their own life and I wonder sometimes if my son hasn’t had that awful realisation that that might have been him and that awful realisation that seeing the consequences and the tragedy that, you know, that it really isn’t the answer. And that there are things in life that are worth living for really so maybe, I don’t know, I’m speculating there but maybe that that’s been a big factor in his life as well
Some parents were unsure whether their child knew about friends self-harming, but others were confident that none of their child’s close friends had self-harmed. A few parents felt guilty when a friend of their child later harmed themselves as they felt this might be seen as copying their child’s behaviour. Sarah Z said she felt terrible when one of her daughter’s best friends tried it. 

Bullying and other unpleasant behaviour are known to play a part in self-harm (see also section on ‘Influence of the internet and social media’). The unkindness of her friends triggered another mental health crisis for Jo’s daughter, and Pat strongly believed that bullying had contributed to his daughter’s distress. However several parents told us how helpful and supportive their children’s friends had been. 
 

Pat’s daughter was desperately unhappy when she was the victim of bullying at school.

Pat’s daughter was desperately unhappy when she was the victim of bullying at school.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
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She still sends a lot of dark messages some days. If they start on her at school, the first place she wants to get is home, which is nice, but she has these feelings that don’t, that go beyond just not wanting to be there anymore. She simply can’t cope and it’s very difficult to get people to take it seriously I think, even, even adults, “Oh, you know, another couple of weeks and they won’t be there. It’ll be half term soon.” But she’s gone in almost every day for four months to be shouted at, screamed at, spat at.

Sometimes it’s just intimidation by looking, you know, and that’s sort of laughable when you’re my size but, when there’s a group of them doing it, and I think they call it the bitch stare, whatever that is, she’s broken, absolutely broken. 
 

Sandra’s daughter had very caring friends who wanted to help.

Sandra’s daughter had very caring friends who wanted to help.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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You know, but then she went to school and she got through the day, got through the week and at times when it got a bit more regularly regular with the self, superficial self-harming, she would literally go to school sometimes without no bandage on and literally show it to her peers to say, “Look. I did this last night.” As a way of saying, “Well, I am struggling here. I need help.” And some of her peers said to her, “Why, why do you feel the need to do that to yourself and why don’t you talk to us and why don’t you talk to someone?” You know, but then she said obviously, by their reaction she didn’t know what to say because she didn’t expect that and she didn’t think they cared about her and she thought no one cared.
Strapline: Sandra’s daughter had very caring friends who wanted to help.

Yeah, that’s right and I wouldn’t say it’s anything that I’ve read from any manual or any book or leaflet. It just intuition, common sense approach, you know, combined with professionalism, you know, all rolled into one has enabled me and empowered me as a parent, as a mother, you know, to cope with all the stress and dilemmas and impulsiveness of my daughter and her self-harming behaviour over the years. And had it not been for that, I think I would have been on tranquilisers by now or needing therapy myself, you know, but I’m a very hands on person. I’m very dogmatic, very practical and I just do whatever it takes to get her through the day. If it means transporting her to college, you know, driving her like a taxi service, you know, if it makes her happy, I’m happy. It’s less stress for me, you know. If she’s happy, if she’s getting through the day and that and she’s not getting any absenteeism, at least something is working. 
 

When Debbie’s daughter told her friends that she self-harmed they were very supportive.

When Debbie’s daughter told her friends that she self-harmed they were very supportive.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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And what’s it been like at the school, do you know? I mean has there been any, has she got friends at school who do the same sort of thing or? 

No, she kept it very closed in, when she went back, because she left mainstream school when she went into hospital and then she was adamant she was going back to do her GCSEs when she came back.

Right.

And she went back but she told them all that she had glandular fever and that she didn’t have any issues so nothing was ever discussed so none of her friends, however, she left school in May and she’s got a big close-knit group of friends that have just suddenly built up again and they’re out and about all the time. And the last month she’s opened up and said that she self-harms and they’ve all been really supportive. None of them actually do self-harm but they have said, “You can always talk to me.” So…

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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