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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Talking about self-harm with the young person

Parents we interviewed had different experiences of talking to their children about self-harm. Some found this difficult, but others had very close relationships and the young people could talk openly about their feelings and the reasons for self-harm. Alexis said she’s always been able to communicate with her daughter. Tracey and Jackie talked to their children about the dangers of cutting and ways to do it safely. Jane S emphasised the importance of keeping up a dialogue: ‘That’s been really important to her because she’s identified things for herself and wanted to work on it’. 
 

Jane S’s daughter explained how she felt and why she self-harmed. Jane shared her own feelings with her daughter to help her understand her side of things.

Jane S’s daughter explained how she felt and why she self-harmed. Jane shared her own feelings with her daughter to help her understand her side of things.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And, you know, when they’re fifteen, sixteen you actually don’t see them undressing so I hadn’t seen the marks on the top of her thighs or just underneath the pant line, where she’d been hiding it, when she’d been at the unit. I obviously didn’t see that but, when I had noticed them on her arms, I was able to talk to her about it and not kind of by then, not fly off the handle and get too emotional or angry. Of course, you just you just want to beg somebody to stop it but I was able to have a really nice chat with her and she did explain a little bit, well, she explained a lot to me about how she felt and why she did it. 

I wasn’t able perhaps, to understand and I was also able to tell her how it felt from my perspective, actually, as a mum who cared for her, for her skin, if you like, ever since she was a baby that, you know, the mother’s instinct and the mother’s heart is to protect their child from harm. And she’s suitably sensitive and intelligent enough to and caring enough to be able to see it from my side as well.
Pat is close to his daughter but finds it hard to understand her. ‘Luckily she does talk to me,’ he told us. ‘We talk about it but it hasn’t improved my knowledge at all. I think we’re as close as a fifteen year old can be with her dad, but that just makes it worse, in a selfish way. I can’t say to her “But we never communicate.”’ Even when young people could talk about their feelings, many were reluctant to tell their parents about their self-harm. ‘She clammed up and wouldn’t tell me anything about it,’ Ruth told us. ‘The worst thing I can do is ask her about it because she just goes crazy. And I know it’s because she thinks I’m trying to make her feel guilty enough to stop.’ When Sharon tried to talk to her daughter about her wounds ‘she just refused point blank’. Liz’s daughter ‘wouldn’t talk about the cutting behaviour but she would talk about her mood and say she was low and wanted leaving alone’. Liz thought she was deeply ashamed of the cutting. Nicky thought part of her daughter’s early unwillingness to talk was down to ‘normal teenage behaviour’, though now they have a 'lovely relationship' and can talk easily. Sharon, Tam and Wendy’s children all said they hadn’t told their mothers they were harming themselves because they didn’t want to upset them. 
 

Tam was pleased that her daughter felt brave enough to express her emotions when she got her to talk about her self-harm. Her daughter said she hadn’t wanted to worry her mother.

Tam was pleased that her daughter felt brave enough to express her emotions when she got her to talk about her self-harm. Her daughter said she hadn’t wanted to worry her mother.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
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I try to get her to talk to me and, actually, about two or three weeks ago she actually yelled back at me and she was crying and we were, you know, I was holding her and I was just telling her, you know, “I love you and I’m not sending you back [to live with her father in America] and you’re staying here and so, you know, if you’re doing this to try to, you know, whatever, get us not to love you or something.” Because she, a lot of the times when I find out about it, she says, “I don’t want to worry you. I don’t want to tell you because I don’t want to worry you and I don’t want you worrying again.”

So I try to tell her, “Well, we’re your parents and that’s our job is to worry [laughs]. When we have, when you have a child, you decide you’re going to worry for the rest of your life about these people.” And so I try to tell her that, just tell her, you know, “Doesn’t matter what you do, I’m still going to love you and so, you know, I.” But I, what I try to tell her is that it makes me angry she does it because she’s a wonderful person and she shouldn’t be hurting herself. So, because I think her dad treated it more like it’s an embarrassment to him.

So I don’t treat it like that because it’s not an embarrassment to me but I try to tell her, you know, “You’re beautiful and eventually, you’re not going to like these marks. And, you know, it’s going to cause scars for the rest of your life and so you’re going to have to live with these and in ten years, you know, when you’re an adult, you’re really aren’t going to be happy with this, you know.” So just to try to get her to understand she’s she, you know, she’s beautiful and that she’s like defacing, you know, this beautiful body. 

But after she yelled at me I noticed on her Facebook that she had put, she yelled at someone for the first time in her life and that was her response on there and it was a positive thing and I liked it [laughs] and I thought, well, good because I think her whole life she’s been the youngest of four and I think she’s always been very introverted. She’s been very introverted and I think it’s very hard. 
 

Nick’s daughter wouldn’t talk about her self-harm

Nick’s daughter wouldn’t talk about her self-harm

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Male
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And has your daughter said why she does it?

No.

No.

No. It’s almost a closed subject.

And maybe in the fullness of time, in a year or two, when she, hopefully, will be over it completely, she might be able to talk about it but no, she’s never, she just clams up completely. The, the recent incident I referred to, I, you know, we ask her in a very non-confrontational way, just to try and open up the conversation about it.

But it, it’s complete clamming up.
 

Nicky’s teenage daughter thought her mother couldn’t possibly understand her.

Nicky’s teenage daughter thought her mother couldn’t possibly understand her.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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She, as a teenager, refused point blank to discuss it with me, partly it was the BPD [borderline personality disorder], partly it was also the I think the very normal teenage, “You’re really old. You’re a parent. You couldn’t possibly understand. I’m not going to waste my breath talking to you about it,” attitude that that comes with those hormones and that age. So we spent a lot of time not talking about it and kind of skirting round the issue and I suspect that’s fairly common as well for lots of us.
Young people may have difficulties finding someone to talk to about their feelings. 
 

It was hard for Sharon’s daughter to find someone she could talk to.

It was hard for Sharon’s daughter to find someone she could talk to.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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There’s no forum for it. There’s, there’s no forum, at, at school they’re not allowed to, I’m not saying they should be out of control at school, but kids don’t run round the playground and let rip like they used to, you know, or a bit of banter or a bit of play fighting or just kicking a football around. They don’t do it. There’s nothing to get their aggression out and to get their feelings out. It’s not encouraged to have somewhere at school to go and talk about these things, without fear of, “People are going to think I’m weird. People are going to think I’m nuts. People are going to think, this that and the other, you know, and what are my friends going to think.” There’s, there’s no forum easily for them to, to tell someone how they’re feeling. And just try and speak to somebody, I think, because with the best will in the world, parents aren’t always the first people children turn to. Quite often it will be a friend but when you’re in a situation like my daughter was in, she only had a few close friends and the majority of those had issues as well, she wouldn’t turn to them because she was, she was supporting them. She wouldn’t turn to me because she knew I had issues myself and didn’t want to make them worse. It’s, it’s trying to find somewhere that she could go to and she could have talked to other than internet forums that aren’t always very helpful places.
 

Fiona thinks it’s harder for young men to talk about their problems.

Fiona thinks it’s harder for young men to talk about their problems.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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I think it being female it helps me to talk. Men are not so good at talking on the whole. That’s a generalisation but and I think that’s one of the things that’s so difficult for my son because his father was very much, you know, men don’t cry, you know, men don’t this, whereas I’ve always enforced in them or reinforced, whatever the word is, actually, it takes more of a man to cry and he does at times.

But he’s again, this is part of his battle, sort of, you know, “I’m obviously pathetic. I’m a bloke and I can’t handle it. So let’s just end it because people would laugh if they knew I can’t handle it.” And it’s like, “No, they wouldn’t.” You know, “Don’t think like that.” But it’s very hard because he is male and you know, this is some of the conversations, “Well, you’re a woman. You can go and talk to a friend and feel better. Who can I talk to? I can’t talk to my mates because they’ll go, ‘oh come on.’ You talk to psychiatrists and they’re ticking boxes half.” This is his conversation.

“They’re ticking boxes half the time. They’re not really listening to what you’re trying to say. A lot of them, their answer is, ‘take this tablet, take that tablet and it’ll numb the pain and you’ll get through it and be strong enough to live.’” and that’s what is very hard with it is there is no answer. 
Dot’s daughter had talked to her GP before telling her mother about her self-harm – Dot said the GP must have been brilliant. From that point on her daughter was talking to her all the time.

Parents developed various strategies when their children wouldn’t talk to them. Ruth decided not to say anything about her daughter’s problems (she had been sexually assaulted) because she didn’t want to make things worse. Some, like Liz, Jackie and Anna, learned to wait for the right moment to try to talk. Liz said, ‘I’d learnt a lot during the passage of these few years and it’s about picking your moment to bring things up. I didn’t jump in, which is what I would have done two years previously. I waited until we were together. She was relaxed and I said, “Are you cutting yourself?” And she went, “Yeah.”’ Sarah Z and her daughter set up a diary system so they could communicate in writing instead of talking. Wendy would have liked family counselling to help her and her daughter talk together.
 

Jackie accepts that her daughter needs to talk on her own terms when she’s ready.

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Jackie accepts that her daughter needs to talk on her own terms when she’s ready.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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So I am always, she’s a very very sensitive kid and talk, you know, I try and talk to her. We are, we are very close but it always has to be on her terms and when she’s ready. And I now accept that. I didn’t before. When she first started doing it, I was, “Oh, oh, oh ” I was an anxious wreck, I was an absolute wreck She’d come in from school, I’d pounce on her. She’d want to just go up to her room and have space, but I didn’t, that, that conflict, “I need to see you’re okay. What, what happened? What kind of a day have you had?” Really talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. 
Now I know that we’ve got to talk, but not in an, for me it’s not in a formal way. We go to the pictures more often now, have something to eat, that’s when I find she’ll talk to me a lot more. Or I can pick her up from her boyfriend or a friend’s house and, you know, she’s had a nice time, she’s relaxed, she’s been with friends, she will talk more then. Just about, not about, not about the self-harming, we’ve not talked about that for a long time actually. Not that it’s a big secret any more, it’s not, it’s out. I do feel that we can talk about that. But about life in general, you know. 
 

Sarah Z’s daughter let her parents know how she was feeling by writing in a shared diary.

Sarah Z’s daughter let her parents know how she was feeling by writing in a shared diary.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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But she can’t she can’t talk about it. Oh, I mean we did, we had, over the year, come up with a number of ways to try and get communication between us going because she is oh, well, she’s a lovely, easy girl really and we’ve always had a really good relationship so that’s been very difficult, not speaking about it. But we, so we set up a diary system and, which we call secret squirrel, and if she was feeling unhappy or feeling like she might self-harm or anything really, she wrote it down and she’d leave it on my pillow.

And then I’d reply so we’d be having a conversation effectively, but she obviously found it much easier to do it that way. She writes really well so she enjoys writing so I think it was much easier than talking.
 

Wendy thinks talking would clear the air and wishes she and her daughter could be helped to do this.

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Wendy thinks talking would clear the air and wishes she and her daughter could be helped to do this.

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
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But talking about it, we skirt around. She knows I know. I know she knows but we don’t really sit down eye to eye. I would love to, absolutely love to but I think and, you know, that is something I pray about as well that one day we will have an appointment to talk about it because I think that a lot of things, you know, well, I know myself that if you can talk about these things you can clear the air and sort things, you know. 

I mean I think she has felt that oh, she’s just, that I’m disappointed in her because of what she does and because of the eating thing and because she’s not slim and, you know. I think, but that’s never anything that I’ve, I hope I have never instilled. I think that’s what she thinks I should feel but, yeah, and so yes, if there was, if you could have family counselling. If we had had or mum, daughter and a counsellor I think, you know, like you have Relate like marriage counselling, I think that would have been hugely beneficial because she could have talked in front of me and I could have talked in front of her but we’ve never really had that opportunity. Yeah.

Yeah. Some people do have that.

Yeah.

But it’s, that’s not something that’s ever been offered or mentioned to you.

No, never, no, no, no and I’ve, I’ve always felt that I wouldn’t intrude on [my daughter’s] privacy by ringing that, her CPN [community psychiatric nurse] and saying, “How do you feel she is?” It’s, I, yeah, I felt very much protective about invading her space, the same thing as I won’t invade her bedroom or, you know, I don’t know what goes on in there. Which is just as well [laughs].
Vicki is a professional counsellor and stressed the importance of talking as a family. Joanna was grateful to her daughter for teaching her about self-harm. ‘She has changed my mindset’, she told us. ’It’s such an eye-opener. It’s been amazing because I would have been completely different, completely shut off.’ This has been helpful for her professional life as well as her personal life. She works with young people and is now able to be non-judgemental and relaxed when they tell her about self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
 

Vicki uses her professional skills to encourage her family to talk positively.

Vicki uses her professional skills to encourage her family to talk positively.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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Are there any positive things that you think come out of your professional world?

Yeah, I think I think there’s lots of lots of positive things that that do come out of it. We’re always talking about mind set. We’re always talking about the fact of, you know, if you think you can do something or if you think you can’t do something, either way you’re right. These kind of things, which are about how keeping positive thoughts in your head can actually make life so much easier and negative spirals are also very, very easy to slip into. 

Even when we’re talking round the dinner table and somebody’s said they’ve had a crap day, it’s like, “Okay. Let’s talk about that but also what’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?” And we, you know, we do try and get everyone, it sounds a bit cheesy sometimes doesn’t it, stuff like that, but we just try and get everyone to focus on good stuff and to have good goals to reach for and be very aware that the media and TV programmes and newspapers and magazines are full of a lot of sensationalised rubbish and you can actually start to believe that this is a reality. Whereas in fact the reality is what you make inside your own head and you can choose to become part of a negative mind set and you can choose to be a positive person. And I’m hoping that this this drip feed she’s had of all this positivity will actually help her in the future to understand how she can think her way towards helping herself. 

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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