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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Telling other people about self-harm

A major concern for families of young people who are self-harming is whether to tell other people about it, how much to tell and who to tell. The parents and carers we spoke to had different views on this.
 

Alexis wondered how to tell people about her daughter’s problems.

Alexis wondered how to tell people about her daughter’s problems.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
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Do you tell people? Do you keep it quiet? Who do you tell? Do you feel embarrassed? Do you feel humiliated? Do you feel, what do you feel? What do you say to people when they say they haven’t seen your daughter for a while? I mean there are all these things. It’s, you’re kind of like you’re skating on ice. You don’t know how to be. Some of my family members really didn’t get it, I mean we’re a very close family. I can remember my brother crying down the phone and saying, “How could she do this to us?” And I’m thinking, “Do it to us?” Someone who really doesn’t understand mental health and still doesn’t, she wasn’t thinking of us.
 

Jane Z would have liked advice about what to say to other people. Keeping secrets added to the pressure on her daughter.

Jane Z would have liked advice about what to say to other people. Keeping secrets added to the pressure on her daughter.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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I meant to say, one of the things, the decisions that we needed help with, at that point, was what we said to people about what had happened.

And what we, what we ended up saying, was that she had, had real problems with dealing with pressure, and that sort of thing, and she’d had small, brief spell in hospital and she was going to be home and we would, you we will be dealing with it, and that sort of thing. What would, with hindsight, I think what we should have said was been quite open with people, and said what had happened, that she had she was depressed, she was struggling with pressure, she’d taken an overdose, and she needed everybody’s help, and support. 

Because, of course, then what, what we then added to all of the pressure that she was under, was the fact that she was keeping it a secret, and that is still a problem. So, those decisions, somebody has to be there, helping the family make those decisions at that point.

What are you going to tell people? And, actually, I think that almost has to be that registrar position, because, in our experience, you can’t wait for, for the CAMHS support to kick in, because it’s just not going to be there, when you need it. So, there has to be somebody sitting there right at the time, saying, “Right. This is what you’re going to put on your Facebook page, or tell your friends, when they text you.” We had a ridiculous situation, the first night, when I was sitting, I went off to get some food for us both, and came back, and my daughter was on the phone to one of her friends, and the friend had phoned to ask how she was, because she’d heard she was in hospital, and two minutes of the conversation was, “How are you?” [my daughter] said, “Oh well, I’m on a drip but I’m, you know, I’m going to be all right.” And all this sort of business, and then twenty minutes of this girl agonising about the problems about, the fact that she was currently at a party, and there was a boy there that she fancied, and he was ignoring her, and she didn’t know what to do about it, and, you know, my daughter actually sat there giving her advice about relationships [laughs]. And you think, oh for goodness sake. But, what, the fact that we weren’t open about things, at that point, meant that her friends didn’t know how to talk to her, didn’t know how to deal with her, or to cope with her, because they didn’t know what they were dealing with.
Some parents, like Jane Z, tried to keep the self-harm secret from most people. They gave various reasons for this decision. Several felt ashamed and worried that the family would be blamed. Sarah Y told us ‘I am reluctant to say too much to many people because you are concerned about what people are going to say to you, blame you, “Well, you’ve obviously failed them as a parent.” And you do feel that and it’s horrid.’ Jo wasn’t ashamed of her daughter, but chose not to tell many people because she was unsure of their reactions. ‘It can be very lonely,’ she admitted. ‘Yes, you can tell everybody but people will then cross the road to avoid talking to you or they’ll get the wrong impression …or they’ll come round and interfere and you don’t always want that.’ Dot and Susan Y wanted to protect their children from being judged. Jim said he didn’t want to have to explain to other people because ‘the reality is so awful, you don’t want to shock them’. 
 

Audrey and her husband only told people they 'trust completely' about his repeated self-harm because he felt ashamed about it.

Audrey and her husband only told people they 'trust completely' about his repeated self-harm because he felt ashamed about it.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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Who else knows about your husband’s self-harming and the mental health problems?

His mum and step-dad and his sister. Obviously, myself. We have about five five or six friends, close, very close friends that know. Obviously, our GP, psychiatrist, [mental health charity] worker, and that’s about it. It’s not something, I mean this is this is another thing that self-harming isn’t very widely spoken about. It’s, you know, it’s very hush, hush, type of thing, which I think is a bit of a shame because if it was discussed a little more, I don’t think there would be such a stigma of people with self-harm. I think I don’t think it would be as I mean it seems just it seems now it seems quite, a lot of people call it attention seeking and to a certain degree, yes, I did say that it was attention seeking to begin with because I didn’t know about. That’s just what you’re brought up knowing, anyone who self-harms, “Oh, it’s attention seeking.” You know, it’s a cry for help but sometimes it goes a lot deeper than that. 

It’s not a cry for help. It’s a way of that person expressing how they feel through pain or through seeing their skin open or through knowing that they’ve harmed themselves or knowing that their blood is coming out. It’s a whole host of different things. I mean it’s a mental, you know, it’s a form of mental abuse. I know a lot of stigma is placed on it so that is why we didn’t tell a lot of people. We’ve told people who we trust completely and, obviously, my husband’s family. They need to know about it but when my husband had did what he did to his legs, about five months ago we had his family over three days after he had done what he’d done to his legs and we had to lie to them. We had to tell them that he had had a football injury, because he was all bandaged up. My husband didn’t have the heart to tell them what he’d done because he was ashamed of what he’d done and he also didn’t want to see the look on his mum’s face. He didn’t want to see the look on his dad, his step-dad’s face. He was very much ashamed of what he’d done for the simple fact that he didn’t think he it would ever come to that again. 
 

People’s shocked reactions made Jane S reluctant to talk about self-harm.

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People’s shocked reactions made Jane S reluctant to talk about self-harm.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And when you’re talking, as we’ve said before, when you’re talking to your friends and family if you do mention self-harming, the reaction you get is such utter shock, even disgust, that you don’t want to go on. You don’t, I mean I don’t mean, you don’t want to carry on talking about it because you’re feeling very exposed and vulnerable. When people’s reactions are one of shock and disgust, it makes you want to clam up. You don’t want to talk about it with them. It’s not a conversation you have, you know, over a cup of coffee and a biscuit with your friends of a morning is it?
 

Dot decided not to tell many people because she respected her daughter’s privacy.

Dot decided not to tell many people because she respected her daughter’s privacy.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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And likewise did you or did you not tell your mother about your daughter’s self-harming?

I didn’t, no.

You didn’t?

I would have felt that was completely, yes, not allowed. For one thing, we didn’t talk about things, my mother and I. We had a very good relationship but it was just old-fashioned, very old-fashioned, and there were just certain areas you didn’t mention. And the other reason is I think it, I had, I felt I had to keep it kind of secret for my daughter’s sake. I’m not so sure why I felt that now. I think if things happen now I treat it differently. But I’m an older, wiser person now and times have changed a bit. I don’t think there was the same stigma then at all. I’m sure that’s not why I said it, um why I decided not to tell people. I think it was just a bit of respect for my daughter. I didn’t want anybody saying to her, “Oh, dear, I hear you’ve been having trouble” or… That’s probably why I didn’t mention it to friends and relations. I probably didn’t want them talking to her about it.
Parents and carers had to decide whether to tell other family members. Sarah A, Ruth, Tracey and Dot were reluctant to upset elderly parents and grandparents. Some mothers didn’t tell their husbands all the details of their child’s self-harm. Ann thought it might upset her husband; Gwendoline didn’t want to worry her husband when he was working away from home. Jackie said she didn’t tell her husband at first because she knew ‘he couldn’t cope with it because he couldn’t understand it. I knew that he’d maybe make the situation worse by saying “Is this just for attention?” And he did say that.’ Others were careful how much they told their other children. Dot didn’t remember telling them anything (the self-harm was nearly twenty years ago) but wondered if her daughter had confided in her older brother. Vicki hadn’t told her daughter’s step-brother because she suspected he would be unsympathetic: ‘He might have gone, “Er, like sort yourself out.”’
 

Roisin kept her daughter’s self-harm secret from her family because she feared they’d over-react.

Roisin kept her daughter’s self-harm secret from her family because she feared they’d over-react.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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Did you tell anybody else? Did she tell anybody else? How widely disclosed was it?

No, no, some of our friends knew. I think probably there may be one or two of her dad’s family may have known. My partner at the time, I told him but nobody else, not really any other extended family mainly because my family are massive over reactors [laughs]. I’m not [laughs] but they are massive over reactors and, in a way, it was a sort of selfish thing really, I certainly didn’t tell my mother because I thought, she’s the last person I’m going to tell because I’m going to have her on the phone to me every five minutes going, “Ooh, what’s happening? How’s [daughter’s name]?” Oh I couldn’t stand all that and it’s the same with my sisters and stuff, I would have got that so it was probably for selfish reasons why I didn’t tell them because I just couldn’t stand the aggravation. Yeah, but that’s, you know, that’s, that’s okay but I didn’t, I didn’t feel like I needed their support at all because I don’t think I’d have got it. I’d have just got this [hand movements demonstrating repeated talking].
 

Ann and her husband told their other children very little about their sister’s self-harm. Ann didn’t tell her husband everything but she found this hard.

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Ann and her husband told their other children very little about their sister’s self-harm. Ann didn’t tell her husband everything but she found this hard.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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The other side of that is that we’ve got two other children. Me and my husband knew what was going on but we didn’t tell anybody else, don’t know why. Was it because we didn’t know much about it ourselves, we didn’t understand it? I didn’t have the answers to why she was doing it.

Oh, hang on a second, I haven’t talked about the other two children have I. The information that we gave them, looking back, was just minimal. They knew that she was a bit down and was struggling with things. That’s as much as what we told them and as much as what we knew. 

I know that he feels bad that it is me that has to deal with a lot of what she comes out with. It’s hard for him, very hard for him. It’s probably our, affected our relationship as well. 

In what ways?

In ways that she’s confided in me things that she doesn’t want me to tell anybody else, including him and something happened recently actually that he became aware of something that I’d been told that had had quite a negative impact on her and I’d actually struggled to keep this to myself and deal with it myself but, for one reason or another, it came out and I think he was hurt that I hadn’t actually confided in him but I think there’s enough people been hurt. I don’t like hearing some things that she says and I struggle to cope with some of the things that she tells me that has happened to her and I think well, why make somebody else’s life a misery. Why upset somebody else? So I just keep it. I just keep it. It’s hard. 
Sometimes secrecy made things more difficult for the people we spoke to. Susan Y avoided going on holiday with family members who were unaware of her daughter’s self-harm because she didn’t want them to see the scars. Gwendoline is a very open person who wouldn’t usually hide things, so she withdrew from group situations where she would normally talk about her family. Ruth said it was ‘quite alienating’ not to speak openly. Jane Z thought secrecy added to the pressures on her daughter (see earlier). 
 

Keeping secrets was ‘terrible’ for Jane S and made it harder for her to get support.

Keeping secrets was ‘terrible’ for Jane S and made it harder for her to get support.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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I remember thinking though with friends that there were some people I would have loved to have tried to share with but I dared not to just in case the reaction was dismissive or incredulous or, you know, critical. I felt I couldn’t take that risk and, therefore, I felt I was leading a double life because I’m a very open person normally, I like to support other people but equally, you know, if they say to me, “What’s the matter? You don’t seem your normal self,” or something, I would probably tell them, whereas I felt I couldn’t, I was hiding and living with this sort of terrible secret that was eating me up and I desperately wanted the help but I was trapped and couldn’t, felt that I couldn’t do so. 
Not all parents chose to keep the self-harm secret. When Anna discovered her daughter was self-harming she ‘called in the cavalry’ and decided to be very open with everybody from the outset. ‘Basically everything that she did, we blew open’ she told us, ‘and we made it very clear to her that there were no secrets’. Nicky thought it was important to talk about self-harm so that people would understand it better.

See also ‘Telling others – family and friends’ reactions’.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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