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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

What parents and carers think are the reasons for self-harm

Many of the parents and carers who spoke to us had searched for some kind of explanation for young people's self-harming. They didn't always ask questions straightaway — sometimes they had to act urgently when the young person had taken an overdose or cut themselves deeply — but over time people tried to understand what had made the young person harm themselves, in some cases repeatedly. Sometimes, no matter how hard they looked for a reason, parents were just baffled by their children's self-harm.
 

Pat keeps asking ‘Why?’ trying to understand his daughter’s self-harm.

Pat keeps asking ‘Why?’ trying to understand his daughter’s self-harm.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
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[Laughs] Why? Which is all I, I’ve spent months literally just saying, “Why?” And it’s really unhelpful because, as I said, there isn’t, I don’t think, it’s almost, [my daughter] would look at it as, “Why not?”

Which is a really huge worry. I’m sat here now trying to think, behind talking, and I’m just thinking, “Why is my little girl doing this?”
 
 

Susan Y said “it just came from what felt like nowhere, that one day we were okay and then there’s this deterioration.”

Susan Y said “it just came from what felt like nowhere, that one day we were okay and then there’s this deterioration.”

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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It just came. It, honestly, it just came from what felt like nowhere. That one day we were okay and then there’s this deterioration. Over the summer, summer period, absolutely fantastic, had a great time. Went back to school in September, started to withdraw a little bit, started to be a lot quieter, lost a little bit of weight but nothing that alarm bells rang. It wasn’t that she wasn’t eating. It wasn’t that she wasn’t doing anything. It was just that she were a little bit more bad tempered. She were a little short with people but she was fourteen and she was starting her GCSEs and, you know, you put up with it. Her dad blamed me because he’s saying that, you know, you know, I condoned her behaviour. I didn’t condone her behaviour, you know. She sits there sulking. I said, “She’s not sulking. She’s tired.” So I sort of justified the withdrawal for her being a teenager and saying, “Just leave her alone. She’s a teenager.” 

So I left her alone and then that’s sort of what happened and then I sort of started looking at the music she listens to and I started getting into my head that it’s to do with that oh it’s this Emo music that they’re all and actually, you know, she’s done a presentation at school. So something is said to somebody, she’s picked up on something somewhere or somebody said something because she had to do a presentation at assembly and she did it on the stereotypical types of music and what people perceive and I thought, “You’ve picked up on something somewhere.” That’s her way of getting it out and, you know, I know her really well. 

But the reality is there wasn’t anything, that nothing caused it in the sense she listened to her music and thought it. What gets me is where they get the idea from? How do they know about it? Where do they get that idea from? How do they know about it? Where do they even get that idea from to think, that’s what I’ll do? But then it’s all over the internet, isn’t it, and it’s all over, it’s out there. So but no, there was nothing. 
Other parents gave a range of explanations, often describing a combination of many different factors, including the need to express painful feelings, the effects of puberty and teenage cultures, difficult relationships, experiences of abuse or mental health problems, and difficulties in early childhood. Some parents thought their own self-harm had influenced their children. Sometimes parents talked about what the young person themselves had said about their reasons for self-harming (see ‘Young people's explanations for self-harm’). 

Expressing emotion
Several parents described self-harm as a reaction to intensely felt emotion, such as self-hatred or anger. Hurting themselves might be the only way the young person felt they could cope with a crisis, which could go on for a long time. In this context self-harm could be a 'cry for help'. 
 

Liz said her daughter hated herself and ‘defacing herself’ was the only way she could find to express that.

Liz said her daughter hated herself and ‘defacing herself’ was the only way she could find to express that.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
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I think that, basically, was what her self-harm behaviour was about. It was she hated herself. She thoroughly hated herself and the only way she could find of expressing that was to deface herself, if you like.

So that’s it really. That’s her story, my story.

When it first started and was there any particular trigger to it do you think or how had she heard, I mean how would it become part of her thing that she could do?

It’s very difficult to say and I never really asked her. I never really asked her what started, at the very beginning, what started that behaviour, why. Her older sister, who also had an eating disorder and was also very depressed, said to me a long time later that she tried cutting herself. I don’t quite know what that means but that it didn’t do it for her. Those were her words. She said, “I tried it but it didn’t do anything for me.” So she didn’t get any of the positive reinforcement that clearly the other one was getting. My other daughter was was getting something from it, some stress release or some expression of anger or something she was getting from it. My youngest daughter also cut herself a little bit. She was aware of her older sister and whether there was some kind of, “I’m feeling angry. It obviously worked for her.” I don’t know. I don’t know what it was with her but the behaviour stopped much quicker. It never became entrenched in the way that my middle daughter’s behaviour became very clearly a way of her coping with distress and it didn’t with the other two. But I don’t know what started it. 
 

Jane S describes her daughter’s cutting as a way of dealing with emotions she couldn’t put into words, including feeling she had let herself or other people down.

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Jane S describes her daughter’s cutting as a way of dealing with emotions she couldn’t put into words, including feeling she had let herself or other people down.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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I know a lot of people go through worse overdoses than that but, thankfully, apart from one other smaller attempt there was no, she had no real desire to carry on, you know, taking her medication like that or hurting herself further but the cutting carried on really.

Say a bit more about the carrying on.

Yeah.

In what form and how long, how much longer?

I’m just trying to work out how old she was then. Well, we had another, that was probably sixteen and we had another three years. We had another three years of cutting really, whenever things just got on top of her and she just felt she couldn’t cope or she felt angry about herself really not the world. When she was you know, beside herself with emotions that she couldn’t really put into words or she problems that she couldn’t solve, feelings of failure in herself. We always boosted her, as we do all our children, you know, they’re the most important things in our lives but it didn’t seem to matter to her. And so whenever she felt she’d let herself down or other people that’s what she would do to take it out on herself, you know. 
 

Isobel thinks her daughter's problems became too much for her. Taking an overdose was the only way she could think of to escape.

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Isobel thinks her daughter's problems became too much for her. Taking an overdose was the only way she could think of to escape.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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And did she say why particularly she’d done it? I mean did she want to die do you think? 

I think it was a cry for help.

Yes.

But I also think it to assume that is quite, one can never know can one? I can’t get inside her head. I can’t think she was, you know, she definitely didn’t want to die. It’s hard to think that a fifteen year old wants to die because it’s so unpalatable and horrible to think that a fifteen year old would want to die. I think part of her just wanted everything to go away and for her parents to get on and stop hating each other. And maybe that was the main issue and then the other things all built up, the school problems, the friend problems, the boyfriend problems until everything became too much and it was the only escape, the only thing she could think of to do.
Life as a teenager
A few parents thought that 'teenage hormones' played a part in self-harming behaviour. Ruth initially thought it 'was a teenage thing' but later was 'scared' to find out that some adults self-harm. Some parents saw an element of manipulation in their child’s behaviour. Jo said that, “Sometimes I can be very sympathetic and sometimes I can’t because sometimes I think it is naughty behaviour”. Charles wondered if his son might be using the threat of self-harm to get his own way.

We know that peer pressure can be a factor in self-harm (see ‘Influence of friends and peers’); several parents thought their child had been influenced by ‘Goth’ or ‘Emo’ subcultures.
 

Charles says his wife thinks a lot of their son’s behaviour is down to teenage hormones.

Charles says his wife thinks a lot of their son’s behaviour is down to teenage hormones.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Male
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My wife, for example, would still say that a lot of his behaviour can be attributed to teenage hormones and growing up, and the normal difficulties of adolescence. But because [our son] has had all these psychiatrists and people dancing round him, telling him he’s suffering from a depressive disorder and all the rest of it, he now uses that as an excuse. And, in fact, jokingly, I mean when he’s not angry, he’s said once or twice, “Well, if I don’t,” with a smile, he’s said, “Well, if you don’t give me some nice presents for Christmas, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

[laughs] 

And this kind of thing. So she feels that if from that first day we hadn’t involved the medical services, I mean initially the GP, who then brought in the CAMHS, the crisis people, who then brought in the CAMHS, other people. If we hadn’t done that [my son] my son might be less prone to using his illness as an excuse not to go to school, not to do homework and not to eat the food which is put in front of him or whatever. Something which he doesn’t feel like doing, says, “Oh, you can’t make me do that. I’m depressed or I’ll get worse or I’ll have an episode.”
 

Sarah Z thinks her daughter was influenced by her ‘Emo’ boyfriend

Sarah Z thinks her daughter was influenced by her ‘Emo’ boyfriend

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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And so, when it started, was there anything else going on at that time?

Yes, there was… She’s had a funny time at school, since going into the into the senior school and she was very, very happy in the junior school, lots of friends. Senior school, she started pushing some of her friends away but also taking up with boys and her first boyfriend was quite a troubled character himself. And I think they sort of egged each other on. He was definitely, I think he would call himself an Emo and he sort of introduced [my daughter] I think, all teenagers are a bit prone to this I think. I think I was, you know, you sort of grab hold of an idea and a whole the music and the look and it was all very, very dark and very, very gloomy and their sort of relationship was a bit like that. He was quite an unhappy boy and they seemed to sort of encourage each other, in a way, to be unhappy but [my daughter] was very, very, very keen on him and he wasn’t very nice to her and I think, although I’d never blame him, but I think that that set of circumstances probably is what put her in such a gloomy place, presumably, alongside, you know, the hormones and everything else that’s kicking in at that age.
 Difficult relationships
There is evidence that family relationship problems can contribute to self-harm. Several parents talked about the impact of the break-up of their marriage, but this was also seen by some as just one part of a complex set of changes and challenges in the young person's life which included difficulties at school and in their personal relationships with family members, friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, and both parents. 
 

Sharon’s daughter was greatly affected by her parents’ separation, but a lot of other things happened which overwhelmed her.

Sharon’s daughter was greatly affected by her parents’ separation, but a lot of other things happened which overwhelmed her.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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Certainly, with my daughter, I think the separation of myself and her father had a big impact on her, more than we thought it had because she’d always been a very happy-go-lucky, nothing fazed her, nothing bothered her, you know, take it on the chin all the time and I think it affected her a lot more than we thought it would. Also, she was going through puberty, which is a, a hideous time for any teenager.

So she was what eleven, twelve…

Eleven, twelve.

…when you separated?

Yeah, yeah. Also, the school changed from being a school to an academy, which in itself wasn’t an issue, but because her particular year had had a couple of years of getting away with a bit more than they probably should have done. Then the academy came in and it was crack-down and their year had a lot of issues with learning to toe the line again. I think that didn’t help and her friends, she’s had a few, one of her friends had a death in the family and needed a lot of support, another one of her friends moved away very suddenly, which she wasn’t expecting at all. We’d also witnessed an accident at a, a racing meeting where a, a man had died, which we saw. You know, it was close to us, which she’d never talk about. And just little bits and pieces and things like that and I had I had a very bad time for a while. I was quite, quite low, which I think affected her obviously, not that she lived with me at the time and I think that didn’t help as well because I’d moved out. So I think it’s a lot of things just all happening at the same time and, and overwhelming her and she didn’t know where to go or what to do. 
 

Isobel’s daughter had problems in several areas of her life

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Isobel’s daughter had problems in several areas of her life

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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And do you know what started it off? Was there any particular trigger or things that were going on?

Trying to sort of look at it now from what I realise now was going on, I I believe she was very upset at school, more upset than I’d realised and her exams were looming. She was very worried about having missed some school, not a great amount but, you know, a certain amount of school and that I think she’d never had a particularly happy time at that school, looking back on it.

And when she went to senior school, it was a time of great change. We’d just moved house and I’d and I’d split up so I don’t think she was ever particularly happy there. It’s a very big school, quite impersonal. She was having a few issues with her friends as well at that time and with her boyfriend and with her parents, with myself and her dad in that we don’t get on and it must be very difficult for her knowing that we don’t like each other. And we had the kind of normal teenage mother fallings out.

She was beginning to push boundaries quite a lot and, although it’s I mean my attitude to bringing up children is completely, vastly different to her father. I’m on the much more relaxed, perhaps too relaxed end of the scale. Her father is much more punitive and strict. So I think the conflict of having one parent, who was incredibly strict, and the other, who was too lax, was quite difficult for her to handle.
Result of abuse
Abusive experiences often contribute to young people self-harming. The abuse has usually occurred in childhood, but sometimes it was more recent. Early abuse most commonly takes place within the family. One woman spoke about her ex-husband sexually abusing his step-daughter and his own sons. Two of them later self-harmed. Others highlighted the impact of abusive relationships outside the family. 
 

After Ruth’s daughter was sexually abused by a stranger her self-harming got much worse

After Ruth’s daughter was sexually abused by a stranger her self-harming got much worse

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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And then in June of last year she had just got back to school, she had got back to school, with a staged c-, return, and she’d been back to school probably about a week and she, something dreadful happened to her. She was sexually assaulted. And that’s when it just completely kicked off, you know, in a big way. She was sexually assaulted, and it went to court and everything. She had to give evidence in court, because he pled guilty up until she, he pled not guilty up until she gave her evidence and then he pled guilty then. So the good thing about that was that he was actually dealt with and, you know, he was punished and everything, but not in a way that I thought was enough. But she was very brave and dealt with it really well and gave evidence against him. 

But that incident, you know, that one incident of, of being sexually assaulted, it was good that she was believed and it was good that it was proved in court and everything like that, but it had a massive effect on her. So up until that point she had been depressed, she had had some self-harming, some sort of rebelling kind of thing, but nothing outrageous, you know. And that just tipped her completely over the edge. And she just, I didn’t know what to do with her at all and it just got worse and worse. And she, was seeing a team at CAMHS, children and adolescent mental health services, who deal with sexual assault. And so she was seeing all the right people, and she still sees them more than a year later, she still goes there once a week.
 

Vicki thought an abusive online relationship had a massive effect on her daughter.

Vicki thought an abusive online relationship had a massive effect on her daughter.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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But there was also a previous incident, which we all believe had contributed to the self-harming, was that in February this year she told me that, no, actually, she hadn’t told me in February. This was when it was going on. She told me in about the summertime, the June, that a boy from school, who she’d befriended, he was an older boy, and they’d kind of struck up a gaming relationship to start with. They used to play online games together and then he asked her to go into Skype conversations with him, which she did. And this kind of snowballed into her kind of being groomed to take off her clothes in front of the Skype camera and perform acts of a sexual nature in front of the camera and she, eventually, told me after this had been going on for probably about six months I think. 

And we contacted the police and the police arrested the guy from school the day after and they seized all the equipment and we’re quite confident that everything was seized and all the stuff that he had on her was destroyed. And we thought, at the time, that she was okay about it all but, looking back on it, I don’t think she had enough support after all this had gone on. I made the decision at the time with the lad that we weren’t going to pursue it through the courts because the main thing for me was that all the stuff had been destroyed. He was obviously, had problems of his own and I didn’t particularly want it carrying of for months and months through the courts and thought it would be best for everyone if it was just put to bed. 

But I think that’s had a massive effect on her and she’d hidden a lot of it and when we actually did get to be talking about her cutting she said, “Nobody realises how upset I am and how down I am and I put on a brave face.” 
 

Ann thinks the reason why her daughter was struggling with life was down to an abusive friendship.

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Ann thinks the reason why her daughter was struggling with life was down to an abusive friendship.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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Eventually, [sighs] I think CAMHS was still on the scene but she was being handed over to adult services because whilst she’d been in hospital she’d actually gone through her eighteenth birthday. So we had the intervention, the young intervention team assess her and that was the first time really that somebody had said to us the reasons why or maybe the reasons why she was struggling with life and that was down to an abusive friendship with another child that she’d known since she was about two and a half and they’d grown up together and we’d gone on holiday together and two families had been very close. 

I still don’t know to this day all the wrong doings were within that friendship, for want of a better word. All I know is the consequences that we’re dealing with from it in as much as you’d got somebody with a very strong personality being friends with somebody who was vulnerable and who didn’t know how to or want to say, no, in situations that made them feel uncomfortable.  

And that’s hard because you know that when they were together as friends you think that you can trust your friends and friends look out for one another but not in that not in that friendship. And that’s been very hard to deal with.
Mental health problems
Mental health problems in the young person can also contribute to self-harm (see more about this in our section on ‘Mental health problems’). Many of the young people were depressed. Some had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder and some experienced upsetting visual or auditory hallucinations. Others had eating disorders, which some of the people we spoke to viewed as closely related to self-harm. 
 

Audrey believes that self-harm is related to deep-rooted psychological damage.

Audrey believes that self-harm is related to deep-rooted psychological damage.

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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Now he’s not, when I say the last time he self-harmed was five months ago, he hadn’t self-harmed, in the sense of cutting for three years prior to that. So he is capable of going long periods of time without doing it. It’s just learning how to manage the triggers. Now we know what some of the triggers are in relation to, you know, it could be family arguments, it could be the PTSD he suffers from, flash-backs, we’re only just getting to the start of dealing with those issues, alongside, obviously, the new psychiatry and things like that. So it’s all about time. It takes time to get through this. It takes time to understand. Everyone has different mechanisms for coping and everyone has different reasons for doing what they do and it’s, I think the biggest part for self-harmers is learning what triggers they have. What sets them off? Why they do what they do? Because there is a million different reasons and I think what a lot of people tend to forget is they forget to actually find out and ask. 

A lot of people think it’s just an addiction, that they do it just for the sake of doing it. Some folk that might be the reason but what I’ve found is a lot of the time it’s not. Its deep-rooted psychological damage in respect of it could be someone suffering from PTSD or it could be someone suffering from severe flashbacks. It could be someone suffering from, you know, abuse. It could be that they are, you know, borderline schizophrenic. It could, it could be anything. It could be depression. It can be absolutely anything but it needs to have, people need to take the time to find out and that’s why I think self-harmers don’t get a lot of the help that they need because it does it does take time and it takes effort on everyone’s part. It’s not just the person who’s self-harming
 

Ann’s daughter cut herself while having hallucinations.

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Ann’s daughter cut herself while having hallucinations.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
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I can remember her being up in her bedroom one night, it was just after this and she started making a noise in the bedroom. I went up and she’d cut herself but she was actually ducking and telling these things to go away and I was looking around the room and I’m thinking, “What?” And I could see that she was bleeding but she, it was like she was talking to somebody that wasn’t there and then she started screaming at me just to take them away and get them to go. And, apparently, she’d seen black shapes and things coming out the walls. And I didn’t know what to make of it and when I flagged it up with her psychiatrist, you just got the nod of the head and, you know, but nobody came back to us with any anything.
Not everybody thought that self-harm was in itself a mental health problem: it could be seen as a way of coping, which to some extent 'worked' for the young person, though parents who saw it like this hoped their child would develop better coping strategies. Jane Z was relieved to see on a self-harm support website that ‘self-harm is not an illness’. Mary had come to the view that self-harm was to some extent part of everyday life.
 

Jane S could understand her daughter’s self-cutting. She explained “it works, doesn’t it, for people who harm themselves? It releases endorphins.”

Jane S could understand her daughter’s self-cutting. She explained “it works, doesn’t it, for people who harm themselves? It releases endorphins.”

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And for people who self-harm, well, that’s a generalisation, but certainly for my daughter, who self-harms, I realised that she couldn’t hold those emotions for any length of time initially, at all. She had to do something immediately to make herself feel better and it looks as if it’s a destructive thing against her own skin but actually, of course, kind of bizarrely it works, doesn’t it, for people who harm themselves? It releases endorphins. I learned the reasons why it was effective, even though I hated it and couldn’t condone it, with my, my, you know, my thinking and my understanding of it made some kind sense to it. And I found that when she realised that she was very poor at coping with her emotions at that instant and she started to hold the emotions for a little bit longer and I supported her and helped her to do that, we were making some progress. 
 

Mary suggested that her son’s self-harming could be seen as part of everyday life, not something to get too upset about.

Mary suggested that her son’s self-harming could be seen as part of everyday life, not something to get too upset about.

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
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And thinking more about it, I’ve sort of come to the conclusion it’s part of our culture, to some extent, in that we take for granted, at least in books, people biting their lip in frustration or anger or as a way of deferring pain from another part of the body or pinching yourself. And I thought, well, you know, maybe this is just a continuum.

And, and, actually, is part of everyday life and that we should just learn to see it as something he does when he’s upset. If it helps him, then perhaps it’s not something to get too upset about and we just make a point of reminding him to keep the knife clean. 
Early childhood
Some parents looked back on the young person's early childhood behaviour, personality or experiences and saw the roots of self-harming there — as Jackie said, 'I could see it in the cards'. Jo-Ann described her infant daughter's frequent emotional ' tantrums', on one occasion threatening to throw herself from a bedroom window. Jane S talked about her daughter having 'high anxiety' and 'obsessive compulsive disorder' from a very young age. Alexis said that her daughter seemed to be unusually troubled emotionally from the age of about six. Sandra remembered that her daughter was 'demanding, impulsive and attention-seeking' when she was in primary school. Sandra believed this was a result of her daughter's traumatic birth, subsequent facial deformity and multiple corrective operations. Tracey also believed that physical illness in early childhood affected her son's emotional and social development and contributed to his current problems.

Parents' self-harming
People who self-harm are often aware of other family members with similar behaviour. Some parents talked about their own self-harming —including cutting and taking overdoses— and worried that they had influenced their children. Sharon said that her 'first fears', when she found out about her daughter's self-harm, were 'It’s my fault. It’s because I told her I did it, she started doing it, that’s what happened'. Jo-Ann, on the other hand, was strangely relieved when she found out that her daughter had started self-harming before she did.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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