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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Personal strategies to help the self-harming young person

The people we spoke to told us about ways in which they helped the young person who was self-harming. Many stressed the need to understand the reasons for self-harm (see ‘What parents and carers think are the reasons for self-harm’). They emphasised the importance of encouraging the young people to talk about their feelings and for families to listen sympathetically. Parents tried to make their child feel better by reminding them of happy times in the past, getting them to think about positive future possibilities, and planning activities to take their mind off their worries or build their self-esteem. Jo and her daughter did baking and sewing together. ‘She needs to do something to dissipate her energy’, Jo told us. It gave her daughter a sense of achievement and ‘gets you through another day’.
 

Annette’s son knew his mother was ‘backing him up one hundred per cent’. She encouraged him to think about the future and boosted his morale.

Annette’s son knew his mother was ‘backing him up one hundred per cent’. She encouraged him to think about the future and boosted his morale.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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What do you think was the turning point for him that, you know, somehow, when he stopped self-harming?

Yeah, I think, for him, I think it was probably an awareness of actually that there was more than just what he thought there was. You see, at the time when he was in his low moods, he was telling me that he was having a low mood and I was actually thinking to myself, “Well, this is scary. Every time he keeps telling me, this is scary. Do I really want to hear it?” But I did want to hear it because I needed to know that nothing more was going to escalate but, at the same time, it was actually having a knock-on effect on me as well. So that was difficult but still keep listening, I think that’s important. But what changed it, I think it’s because he knew I was backing him up one hundred per cent. He knew if anything, if he was worried about anything or anything, if he had someone backing him up they were there, they were supporting him one hundred per cent. He knew that I loved him to bits.

No matter what but I think it was more that I was actually just there. You know, when he wanted to go to the appointment to see a psychiatrist or something, he couldn’t do that himself. It was actually really, really tough for him to do that.

So, by having me there to come with him, that was almost half the battle really. It was like I was taking that on for him.

So he didn’t have to think that for himself because to think things is stressful, it’s really stressful to think things when you’re in a dark mood. You know, so it was good that somebody else was taking that on. So a lot of that was the basis of supporting, you know, that they didn’t actually feel they were out there, you know, being on their own. 

Because you can’t do it. You can’t, no matter how the will in the world, sometimes you just cannot do it and even to pick up the phone, you can’t do it either, to let that person know but they think you’ve let them down but you haven’t. It’s just you’re so low in yourself. I think also the future, talking about the future. He really wasn’t expecting that one. He really thought this was what I guess the low mood was, the low mood and he felt he couldn’t get out of it, that he said there didn’t seem anywhere, way out. But I keep talking about, what would he like? What would he like to, you know, he could have children. He could he could meet someone and he could be happy and he could have a lovely life, and a family and how the family thought the world of him, how important they were to him.

Yes.

And that they would miss him and if they saw him hurting himself that would be upsetting. You know, not saying upsetting as in, that he should feel any pressure to that but that they cared for him. Yeah, that they cared for him.

Yeah.

And that they wouldn’t want any harm coming to him. So I think it was a lot, making him feel that he was part of something, yeah, that knew him and knew him well. And putting the comedy films on and things like that a lot of stuff I played back to him was things that he’d actually liked from his past, you know. There was one, I don’t know, a film, if I can mention it?

Yeah.

A series in particular was Only Fools and Horses.

Oh yes.

Because there was a camaraderie of family in their humour, in their adversity and humour and he could really, really associate with that and I think and even to this day, I mean we go to the conventions [laughs], But he’s really kept that in his mind because he played that over and over and over, you know, and even sometimes when he’s feeling a bit low now, occasionally, not so much, but he still says, “Let’s get the Only Fools and Horses on, mum.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Yeah because for him, that really made him laugh, you know, because he felt the sense of family in that, yeah, because there was brothers together no matter what, so that kind of sense of feeling is important.

And also the worth, that you’re constantly telling them that they’re brilliant, they’re wonderful, that was fantastic, well done, God, that was great, thank you, oh, that kind of thing. All the time you’re just telling them all the time constantly.
 

Charles tried to encourage his son by telling him how common depression is.

Charles tried to encourage his son by telling him how common depression is.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Male
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I said something to him, trying to encourage him, saying that depression was a very common condition and even, I said, even when I was thirteen or fourteen, I got very cross with something at school and even went so far as swallowing I think two, possibly three aspirins before giving up. And I mentioned this in a sort of humorous encouraging way, saying you can get over these things and lots of people like Stephen Fry and Winston Churchill and God knows who, many people manage to overcome depression and so on. 

And he got angry about this and left the room and I found him again having found a kitchen knife or something, no actually, it was an eating knife, which he had attempted to disinfect with a flame thrower thing. I thought it was rather amusing. “If you’re going to try to kill yourself, you should disinfect the blade”, but any rate, he’d made a number of marks and left all the evidence all laid out, the knife and the gas lighter and everything all laid. And then I found him sitting again with a belt round his neck but clearly in a room with the door open so that I would find him and I tried to comfort him and calm him, which I think succeeded, and the next day in fact he was as right as rain.
 

Jackie stuck a list of suggested activities on her daughter’s door to remind her of things that helped her feel better.

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Jackie stuck a list of suggested activities on her daughter’s door to remind her of things that helped her feel better.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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My idea, I know she’s always liked keeping fit. So then I put a list on her door. I took some of what he [American website] had suggested and some of my own ideas. “Right, I know she likes doing the gym and stuff. Look, if you feel like that, go for a jog.” So I done that. I think that helped her, I do a list for her and stuck it on her door. If she felt like she was going to harm, “Right, here’s some things you can do.” Go and walk the dog. Go and phone a friend. Just come down and see me if you need to cry. Or come down and see me and not necessarily talk about that. Company. Go and take the dog for a walk. Go and see your sister, she’s a great tool. She’ll have you colouring in, reading her stories, use your sister, you know. Which is, their, their relationship now is really tight. The, the, the turnaround, they’re really, really close, given the age difference.
Some people had searched for information which would help them support the young person. Vicki wanted to get to the root cause of why her daughter felt like self-harming. She suggested some of the distraction techniques she had read about to her daughter, who didn’t think they were sensible. Audrey researched post-traumatic stress disorder so she could help her husband and suggest coping strategies. She wanted a better understanding of the illness and the medication he was taking. Jane S wanted to understand her daughter’s point of view. She said she had to ‘switch off my emotions, my mother’s heart, and become almost like a therapist.’ She worked with her daughter to overcome her problems.
 

Jane S had a plan to identify patterns connected with her daughter’s self-harm and help her to deal with problems.

Jane S had a plan to identify patterns connected with her daughter’s self-harm and help her to deal with problems.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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The plan we had was certainly one of consultation and working together so that she agreed and promised to tell me every time, we we’d identified that there was a build-up and we tried to see if there was a pattern, you know, for when it first, when it when it started to rise, if you like, in amount, if there were any reasons and difficulties that that caused it. 

So we identified, you know, a number of issues, if you like, that gave rise to the self-harming such as being overloaded at work, with work, I know, having bad results on something, I know it sounds quite petty but actually, for her that was hugely important. So learning to be able to deal with, in her eyes, failure, dealing with the inappropriate comments of other people was something she found very hard to deal with. Not only criticism but, you know, crass comments from other people and those would be the kind of issues that might you know, start her on this build-up towards harming. So there was that, which I think was very important, therefore, kind of helping her to solve her problems and to take small chunks of the problem into manageable parts and to keep her calm. 

It was pretty much twenty four hour, seven work I have to say and my husband found it all really very difficult. So you know, and my other children found it very difficult as well, which perhaps, you know, you’d like to talk about later. But recognising, her recognising the build-up and coming to me and saying that she felt you know, all wound up and it was possible, you know, that she might self-harm. Getting her out of her bedroom, getting her away from being on her own with her own thoughts and being, you know, depressed really was something. I mean sometimes she’d run out of medication and that was another hurdle we had to cross but certainly talking about it and finding, you know, somewhere else to be. 

We also found, for instance, that it was worse for her when she was very tired so last thing at night, she was far more prone to self-harm, therefore, you know, if we could manage to get her to take a bath and, you know, spend some time with us and then to go to bed at a reasonable hour having gone through the worries for the next day and had a plan then that was better. 
 

Vicki wanted to help her daughter by understanding why she self-harmed and supporting her.

Vicki wanted to help her daughter by understanding why she self-harmed and supporting her.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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Can you talk a bit about how you feel information helps you?

I think it’s getting an understanding of why people feel it helps and looking at other people’s case studies, just hearing other people’s stories, makes you feel like you’re less alone in it all and you can gain a lot of strength from that kind of thing, even though you don’t know these people, it’s like, okay, it’s good to it’s good to hear that other people have had the same sort of emotions and as yet, I don’t know if I’ve been able to find anything that can truly help me help her with the actual act of self-harming. I think that’s all got to be down to, getting right down to the root cause of why she feels like doing it in the first place. And there’s all sorts of things like how to deflect the need to harm by things like crushing up paper, holding ice cubes and she’s just like, “Mm. Nah [laughs] I don’t think so.” One of, one of the things is a cold shower and she says no, are you mad? What could be more mad - a cold shower or [laughs] yeah. At the moment, I haven’t been able to find anything that that I feel can make a real impact so it’s all about just supporting her through to the therapy stage and hoping that all her mind can be unpicked and put back together again in a way that that’s good for her, so yeah.
Parents told us about other things they had tried in order to help their child. Jackie did Reiki, meditation and healing with her daughter, and sent her to school with Rescue Remedy (a homeopathic preparation). She made sure her daughter had plenty of sleep and a healthy diet with lots of vitamins. Pat hoped a multivitamin regime would help his daughter. Sarah Z’s daughter found it hard to talk to her parents so they introduced a ‘Secret Squirrel’ procedure where she could write her thoughts in a diary which her parents could read. Liz recommended a system where her daughter could send her a blank text when she was feeling low and it was difficult to talk. 

Making home life as good as possible was also important. Anna wanted to provide a clear structure and set of boundaries for her daughter, while making sure ‘she felt incredibly loved’. Ann took time off work to help her daughter get into a routine and find a purpose. Other parents tried to make their home a safe welcoming place, and to let their children know how much they were loved. Annette constantly told her son that she loved him and how wonderful he was (see clip above). 
 

Jane Z gave her daughter space and did ‘little things’ to show she cared about her.

Jane Z gave her daughter space and did ‘little things’ to show she cared about her.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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You’ve got to not focus on the harming at all, as, as, as a problem in itself. It’s a result of the feelings. It’s not something that the, 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, you know, just sort of.” She eventually, instead of the trawling over the internet, all the night and, you know, and I know we had Childline calls, and that sort of thing, that, that happened in some of the worst times, and actually, some of that wasn’t very helpful, that we actually encouraged her to start watching films overnight.

And, you know, I just sort of said to her, “Look, sleep, you don’t have to sleep at night. You can sleep during the day if you want to. If, you can sleep whenever you like. But if you don’t want to sleep at night, read a book, put a film on, you know, just put your phone under the bed, or whatever.” And she, she has watched endless films over the last eight or nine months, and they are a real release and it’s, you switch off, and it’s finding the thing that your own child can, makes them feel a little bit more comfortable.

Helps them to switch off, and you know, we had several weeks, even months, where she couldn’t bear me being anywhere near her, and, as a as a mother, you’ve just got to accept that, and say that, at some point, hopefully she will come back, and if she doesn’t, she doesn’t. Actually, you’ve just got to live with that, but our experience is that, by giving them the space, and by not trying to force. So, I tried to do just little things, all the time, so if she hadn’t eaten for a while, I’d just make a cup of tea, and take a cake up, and just leave it by the bed. If she got up and about, I’d just go and make her bed, and make her room comfortable again and that sort of thing. Little things that show that you care and you’re thinking of her, but you’re not in her face all the time. 

And it takes a long, long time but, she’s trying to overcome two feelings about me as a parent. One is that she’s let me down, which no child ever lets a parent down. It doesn’t matter what they do. But, it’s that feeling of shame, and you’ve sort of got to, try to get across the idea, that they haven’t let you down without you feeling that actually, you’ve got very low expectations [laughs]. It’s not an easy one, so but you do care, and also this age group, particularly, they want to be growing up, and they want to be independent, and your instinct as a mother, at this stage, is to wrap them up in cotton wool, and hold very tight. But, that’s not necessarily the right thing to do. So, I think you’ve kind of got to somehow find a way to show, that the cotton wool is there, if they ever want it, and, eventually, come back for it. 
 

Jackie wanted to make her home a ‘sanctuary’ for her daughter.

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Jackie wanted to make her home a ‘sanctuary’ for her daughter.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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Even if you have that counselling and everything like that, I think if your home life is crap, you, you’re up against it. The child has got to come home to an environment that doesn’t have any conflict in it. It’s got to be an environment that’s welcoming and comfortable and warm. Because if you’re in an environment where there’s conflict, which there was before, it’s just going to make it a whole lot worse. You want them to think, “I’m desperate to get home to my sanctuary.” That’s what you want. You’ve got to make your home a sanctuary, you know, make the room comfortable, candles, make the room warm, comfortable, candles, lights, aromatherapy oils, make the room a sanctuary. Try and make your house a place that they can talk in. I would say that, definitely. But that’s all tough lessons it’s taken a long time, two and a half years, to really learn
 

Sandra helped her daughter by spending ‘quality time’ and ‘being there’ for her.

Sandra helped her daughter by spending ‘quality time’ and ‘being there’ for her.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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So there are times I have to say to my husband, “You know what, I’m going to have mother and daughter time so can you just make time for [name].” So I’ll do a plan. I’ll say to him, “This week, I’m going to have three days where I spend quality time with my older daughter and you spend time with the younger one so she also feels validated.” 

But because the older one is going through so much stuff, she needs that extra time so I might have to go to her room, read with her, you know, just lie by her, talk to her as opposed to her talking to herself because there are times she does talk to herself. And so by doing that, it’s helped because then my older daughter is thinking, “Oh, Mummy is spending time with me.” So what she’s started doing, when I’m spending that time with her, she’s started feeling more comfortable to share things with me and she’ll rest her head on me and she’ll cuddle me and she says, “Oh I love you, Mum you’re so cuddly.” You know and that’s been quite therapeutic for her as well and I think it’s also aided and assisted her in reducing, you know, the self-harming or even having thoughts and carrying them out because she knows I’m there for her. And I’ve supported her in most of her, I would say ninety five per cent of her attendance at her therapeutic sessions, yeah.

Supported her in the sense of…

Taking her and staying with her.

Staying with her?

It’s just since she’s turned sixteen and a half, seventeen, I’ve sort of let her go by herself. I said to her, “You need to go by yourself now and, you know, access the services because I want you to be independent. I want you to do it for you. You know that Mummy’s there but you need to go.” Yeah.
People also thought it was important to have support themselves (see also ‘Support for parents and carers’). ‘You can’t do it on your own’, Jackie told us. ‘You need to have a good support network, good friends, good mental state yourself, you’ve got to be good within yourself.’ Anna said it was useful for parents to have other interests to ‘stay sane’ so that self-harm was not always the focus. Audrey needed to keep in contact with her friends, who were her ‘lifeline’. Looking after herself also included keeping in touch with her GP, and eating healthily. She said it was important not to forget about ‘you time’ and for both her and her husband who was self-harming to have a ‘nice chilled, relaxed time.’
 

Audrey thinks it’s very important to be calm and ‘connected’ to keep a relationship strong.

Audrey thinks it’s very important to be calm and ‘connected’ to keep a relationship strong.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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I try wherever possible, for both myself and my husband, to have a nice chilled, relaxed time because then that helps him recharge his batteries. It helps him think about things logically and it helps me think about things logically, you know. It helps us connect you know, because I feel a lot of the time, people lose their, lose their way in a sense towards each other, when dealing with mental health illnesses and, you know, and or self-harming. So I think it’s very, very, very important that you never lose what you’ve had. Always connect, always connect with one another. You have to. I mean we went through a stage where we were like ships passing in the night. We live in the same house, we sleep in the same bed but we were literally, ships passing in the night and it was just ridiculous. So I think it’s very, very important to not forget about ‘you time’ as in couple time or whatever the case may be, I think it’s very, very, very important not to lose sight of that. And that helps the relationship. It just keeps it stronger, if nothing else.
Carers also acknowledged that the person who self-harmed had to want to be helped. Jackie said ‘Ultimately it’s my daughter that’s turned it around though… she’s the one that’s helped herself.’ Audrey told us: ‘it’s about the two of you working together because I can only help my husband if he’s willing to take the help.’ She stressed the need for patience: ‘It’s about not giving up. It’s about understanding what they’re going through… It takes time. …It’s hard but it’s worth it. When you see end results of your loved ones doing things that they never thought they would do, it’s heart-warming to see it.’

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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