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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Messages to other parents and carers about self-harm

We asked the people we spoke to if they had any messages for other parents and carers, based on their own experiences of caring for young people who self-harmed. 

Parents urged others caring for people who self-harm to remember that they are not alone. As Nick said, ‘it’s a lot more common than you think.’ They stressed the importance of not ignoring what was happening and acting quickly to get help. ‘It’s not going to go away on its own,’ Ruth told us, ‘Act immediately. Act the moment you think your child is going down that road. Act and get professional help.’ ‘Trust the professionals. They know what they’re doing’, advised Erica. People said sometimes you need to keep on trying to get the professional support you need. ‘You need to be like a dog with a bone really if you’re not happy,’ said Ann. ‘If you’ve got concerns about your child’s mental health, then don’t let it rest.’
 

‘Be that lioness for your cub’, fight to get support and stay hopeful, says Alexis.

‘Be that lioness for your cub’, fight to get support and stay hopeful, says Alexis.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
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I would just say to people to remain hopeful. It might be a long, long journey and it might feel at times where your terror and your fear is going to completely overwhelm you but just remain hopeful, remain strong and realise that nothing stays the same. That, although dealing with or supporting a young person who self-harms or who has mental health problems is probably something you never ever expected. You will not have coping strategies. You will not have a rule book, which tells you what to do. 

I would also say, if you need support, get it, fight for it, shout loudly, go and see your GP, insist, go, you know, use casualty if you need to use casualty. If, if you are out of your depth and if you’re scared, make as much noise, be that, be that lioness for your for your cub, basically. That’s what I was. That’s how I saw, I would, you know, I would I would get any help that I could get, you know, make a noise and just have faith, be, be patient that hopefully, it will pass, that as your child grows older, if they, you know, with or without the help of medication that their emotions will, will change and they will become better at dealing with their issues and, finally, I suppose, that realisation that once your child is a bit older, the decisions they make about their own life, actually, are their decisions and, as a parent, we can only go far in, in what we do. 
 

Audrey says don’t give up, there is help available, but don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re not happy with your doctor.

Audrey says don’t give up, there is help available, but don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re not happy with your doctor.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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Is there anything you feel you can say to other people in a similar situation to yours?

Just don’t give up, don’t give up because there is help out there, there is. It took us three years and it’s been hard, very, very, very hard at times but you will get there. You will and I know it’s such a total cliché and you, I used to hear it all the time but it is so true and you have to talk. Don’t keep anything to yourself and go and see your GP yourself with regards to your own health and well-being because you need to stay strong. You need to keep yourself mentally well as well as physically well in order to help your partner or granddad or whoever it is, you have to keep yourself well. You can’t forget about yourself and that’s what I would say. 

You have to also remember about you but don’t ever give up and don’t think that nobody cares and if you’re stuck with one GP or one psychiatrist that you’re not happy with, change. You can change at any point, change them because one psychiatrist will not always work for everyone. You some times have to go through a different route but honestly, change until you find one that suits you. As a family, as an individual, whatever, until you find one that suits you, change. Don’t be ever afraid to open your mouth and say because ultimately it’s your it’s your health, you know, it’s your family’s health, it’s your loved one’s, it’s everything so, you know, I can’t stress that enough but yous’ll get there.
A common message was that parents shouldn’t blame themselves or feel guilty about their child’s self-harm. Jo said: ‘Don’t be ashamed. It’s not your fault and it’s not actually your child’s fault either.’ Alexis thinks guilt isn’t helpful: ‘I would say to mothers, don’t feel guilt. Guilt is not going to help you. Whatever has happened in the past, let it go.’
 

Vicki realises it’s hard not to feel guilty, but advises other parents not to blame themselves but to stay strong in order to support their child.

Vicki realises it’s hard not to feel guilty, but advises other parents not to blame themselves but to stay strong in order to support their child.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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I think to other parents and carers, it’s don’t feel alone. Try not to feel guilty. It’s very it’s very hard not to feel guilty because you feel so responsible for your child but treat it as their pathway to learning about themselves. I think sometimes things need to get really bad before they get better and that if your child does want to get therapy, that’s fantastic. If they don’t, keep supporting them anyway and keep giving them that unconditional love because that’s what everyone needs. It may be that one day they will feel able to get to get treatment but don’t blame yourself too much because having a negative worried parent around, I don’t think is helpful. I think if you can stay balanced and if you can stay normal and keep being supportive because you can’t be supportive if you’re a mess yourself. You have to stay very, very strong for that person who’s struggling. And yeah, look after yourself well and just be there and be loving.
 

‘We all make mistakes’ says Jane Z. You have to ‘put yourself on hold’ and not force anything on your child.

‘We all make mistakes’ says Jane Z. You have to ‘put yourself on hold’ and not force anything on your child.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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And what advice would you have for other parents and carers?

[Laughs] We’re all, we’re all so different aren’t we? It’s, everybody is going to tell you, “it’s not your fault!” Okay, and, quite frankly, as a parent, everything your children do and feel, is your fault, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you could have done anything about it. And, I think, if you, if you have made the right decisions, for the right reasons, over the years, whatever happens, your children will forgive you for them. So, even if you do make mistakes, and you get things wrong, because we all do, that, you know, they will come back to you.

It’s that sort of thing isn’t it, that, that, it’s very, very difficult for a teenager to trust anybody, doesn’t matter who they are, and everything, every influence around them, is telling them to ignore their parents. So, forcing yourself, on your child, is going to do more harm than good, I think. And, much as you want to be in there, and hugging, or shouting, or screaming, or shaking, or whatever else it might be, you have got to go allow your child, to, to, to sort of take the lead. My only problem, that I found, in that, is that I’m not a hundred per cent sure whether I’ve got that, completely right, because I know that my daughter now, just desperately needs a hug, but doesn’t know how to ask.

So, I’m not sure how we get over that one. I think we are getting over that one, gradually, but, the, the, the big thing about all of, how the teenager feels like this, how a child feels in this situation, is that they feel completely lost, and completely alone. So, forcing anything on them isn’t going to work. That’s just going to force them further back, into this black hole. Somehow, got to try to find a way of inviting them out, little steps by little steps, just gentle things but, that’s, that’s really hard, and you have to put your own self on hold. You’ve got to forget that, you are a person on your own, and it, and it, it’s, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To, to accept that you’re not the most important person in this at all, but you’ve just got to stand back, and allowing complete strangers to do things for your child that you want to do, is really hard.

But, you have to let that happen, but because, you do just want to hold on, and lock all the doors.
The people we spoke to had various messages about the best ways to help the person who was self-harming. Some said it was important to research and get as much information as possible in order to understand the reasons for self-harm. They advised parents not to blame their child, but to encourage them to talk about their feelings. Bernadette said, ‘Keep the lines of communication open, don’t be too shocked, even if in your heart you are really absolutely horrified.’ Others also emphasised the need to keep calm and not over-react by expressing anger or shock. Several encouraged parents to let their child know they were loved, but also not to neglect other children. ‘If you have other children in the family, it’s very easy for this to become all consuming,’ Tracey warned parents. ‘Try to balance and have some time with other people in the family to keep those relationships maintained and healthy.’ Liz said self-harm shouldn’t be the focus of your relationship with your child. 
 

Roisin advises parents not to over-react and not to feel responsible for their child’s behaviour.

Roisin advises parents not to over-react and not to feel responsible for their child’s behaviour.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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I think mainly, and this is easier said than done, to not over react and I know you said everybody says that but just don’t over react. The last thing that that the young person in that situation needs is some hysterical parent, you might feel like that, [laughs] but don’t show it to them and if you’re going to go and freak out, freak out when they’re not there. Yeah, it might be completely outside of your you know, experience and something you’ve never encountered before but, you know, and it’s not attention seeking. That’s another thing that people think, “Oh it’s just attention seeking.” It’s not attention seeking. It’s normally, a demonstration that there’s really something quite wrong and it’s not necessarily anything that you’ve done. That’s another thing that I think people think, “Oh, what did I do? I’ve led, I’ve led her, I’ve led him to do this.” And that’s not necessarily the case. They might be acting out anger towards you but like that’s sort of their job if they’re a teenager [laughs] but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the case. It’s not necessarily anything you’ve done and probably something completely unconnected. 
 

Don’t judge, be understanding and compassionate. Your children need your support and love, says Jo-Ann.

Don’t judge, be understanding and compassionate. Your children need your support and love, says Jo-Ann.

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Be understanding. Don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened to talk to them about it. Don’t be frightened to get help. Get help as soon as you can because, even if your child has just got a scratch that they’ve done themselves, that can escalate and also it’s not the severity of the cutting that’s the important thing, it’s the severity of the feelings that make you cut. So even if it’s only a scratch, it doesn’t mean that your child isn’t in as much pain as somebody who cuts with a Stanley knife or whatever it is that they do. Take notice. Don’t ignore it but try and be empathic and compassionate because they don’t need judgments. They feel, they feel as bad about themselves as it is. They need your support and your love and your care, yeah, that’s what I would say.
 

Shouting and screaming won’t help, says Sharon. Keep your cool and find support for yourself.

Shouting and screaming won’t help, says Sharon. Keep your cool and find support for yourself.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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I think the first thing is on discovering that you suspect self-harm, don’t lose your rag and shout and scream at them. You’ll just drive it underground and scare them and upset them. Obviously, not every young person is going to turn round and say, “Oh, yeah, actually I have been doing this.” But try and be encouraging that there are places to talk, to go to, people to talk to. There is help out there. That it’s not a dark, nasty, seedy, disgusting habit or something that, that you think they’re just doing for attention because it isn’t always. You know, it’s and if, if you seen it, they’ve either let their guard down or they want you to see it. You know, that’s a little, a little acknowledgement that, they won’t admit it, but if they’ve enabled you to see what’s going on, that could be a little sign to say, “Look, you know. I need some help here.” And that’s what you’ve got to give them, is help and shouting and screaming and getting upset and stressed isn’t going to help. That, that’s just going to send them away. And you’ve got to find support for yourself. You’ve got to try and look, go to your GP, go online to a reliable source, phone a specialist and say, “Look, this is what I think is happening. How do I find out? What do I say? How do I broach it without upsetting or turning them away? What can I do?” And that’s, that’s, it needs to be there to for people to be able to look and say, “Look, this is what you can do.” There’s no rulebook. Try and keep your cool, I think that’s the main thing, and a hug goes a long way.
Another message was that carers should be aware of their own needs and look after their own health and wellbeing. As Audrey says above, ‘You need to keep yourself mentally well as well as physically well in order to help. …You can’t forget about yourself’.
 

Tracey says parents need to keep emotionally strong and have some time for themselves.

Tracey says parents need to keep emotionally strong and have some time for themselves.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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And I and I think I’d add to that again, by trying to keep trying to keep yourself reasonably strong and not, very easy to say this, to actually carry it out is a different thing but do whatever you can to stay emotionally strong and well, so that you, you know, and sometimes I think it’s easy to think, “I can’t hold it all together.” And sometimes you won’t be able to hold it all together but just to be aware that you deserve, you know, as a human being, you deserve to actually have some time for yourself and to actually have some nurturing for yourself, whatever that might be, whatever it is, you know, some time out. 

If there is somebody else that you can talk to, you know, if it’s just shopping or something that gives you peace or something else to divert attention away from what’s going on. You know, but sometimes it’s kind of easier said than done but they are the sorts of things I think I think I would say and keep trying to talk about it. The young person might not want to talk about it but it’s worth trying to understand what’s going on and try not to be too shocked about what they say and what you see because that might lead them to have other feelings that might lead them not to tell you the next time because if you overreact, you become traumatised by it visibly, you can have a private trauma, but visibly then they are going to have other feelings like guilt and shame and all the rest of it that, you know, won’t help them to actually be able to perhaps talk about it another time. So yeah, I think that’s perhaps it, what I’d say for now.
The people we spoke to wanted to tell others not to give up hope. ‘Hang on in there’, Rosey encouraged. ‘Never ever give up on your children, even at the worst of times’, said Erica. Philip’s message was ‘I feel for you. Stick with it.’ Nicky was reassuring: ‘For anyone who’s going through it, for anyone who is self-harming, I’d say my daughter is living, breathing proof that you can find other strategies.’ Although it was a hard struggle, she now has a ‘beautiful relationship’ with her daughter. ‘If you’d said to me, “You’ll have a relationship with her like that and she’ll stop hurting herself and she’ll be able to do all the things that she wanted to do in life,” I’d have laughed, really I would have. There were years when I never saw an end to any of this and there is an end in sight, but it’s not an easy or a quick fix.’
 

Jane S advises other parents to have hope, find out more, be resilient and continue to love and respect your child.

Jane S advises other parents to have hope, find out more, be resilient and continue to love and respect your child.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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I would definitely say to have hope that you can come through this and that your child can come through this and that’s really backed up by research. I also think very strongly that unless families can help the individual with the problem, that where else are they going to go. Where else are they going to go and get help? And that if this is a problem that’s escalating in our country, then parents and other family members, other carers are an invaluable resource that the NHS should recognise and use. And that by involving parents or carers and by listening to what they say and by working together that we could make a big difference to the numbers of children who do this. 

But, you know, for, for other parents I would say, yeah, have hope. Find out more. Try and encourage a dialogue, you know, and a good relationship. Teenagers are very difficult, we all know that. We don’t have to be saints and you will get it wrong sometimes. I would say to them, you know, don’t despair if it all goes badly wrong and you think you’ve lost it and you, you know, they’re not speaking to you and you’re not speaking to them and there’s a terrible, you know, barrier between you. You can get it back, you know. You have to be resilient. We are pretty tough I think parents on the whole and enduring and have, you know, continue to have the love and respect for your child and to and to keep hold of the fact that they are a person, not just a, and I actually hate the term, ‘self-harmer’ because I think that makes someone just a case. And also it rather means that they’re going to do it long term and I don’t think it has to be long term. So yeah, and if you’re the sort of person who really needs to do a lot of reading to come to terms with it like me then I think do so. But it’s not something that you can ignore. It’s not something that you can hope will just go away on its own. I think you have to get involved.
See also ‘Emotional reactions’, Shame, stigma and taboo’, ‘Personal strategies to help the young person’, ‘Towards recovery’ and ‘Thoughts about the future’.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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