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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Young people’s explanations of self-harm

We spoke to parents and carers, not to young people who self-harm; but in this section we highlight what parents told us young people themselves had said about their reasons for self-harming.

Young people varied in how far they wanted to or could explain their self-harming to their parents (see also ‘Talking about self-harm with the young person’). Charles said his son had been 'reluctant to open up' to his parents, but had spoken to a psychiatrist about his reasons for self-harm. Dot remembered that her daughter had explained clearly her feelings of unhappiness and low mood but 'didn't really know' why she had self-harmed. However, other young people had tried to explain the reasons for self-harming to their parents, including releasing tension and expressing pain; difficulties with their parents; and the influence of other young people.

Releasing tension and expressing pain
Several young people had said that self-harming released tension or unhappiness they were feeling and helped them to cope better with their lives. 
 

Alexis’s daughter explained that “if you’re hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin, to give yourself other pain, stops the feelings in your head.”

Alexis’s daughter explained that “if you’re hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin, to give yourself other pain, stops the feelings in your head.”

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
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At some stage, I can’t remember how old she was but I do remember she explained it very coherently. If your head is hurting with emotional pain, if you’re unhappy, if you’re really, really hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin, to give yourself other pain, stops the feelings in your head. She’s always been very coherent at explaining the things that she’s done and I could, even though I can’t really understand why anyone would do that, I understood that. It’s deferring that pain away. 
Unhappiness came from not having friends, from being bullied, from feeling different and as though they did not 'fit in'. Some young people had talked about not liking themselves, or their life, and about self-harming to express their pain or to punish themselves. Joanna’s daughter said she was so sad that she wanted to kill herself, ‘so I just wanted to do something to take my mind off killing myself’.
 

Roisin said her daughter hated the way that she felt, but didn’t understand why she felt like it.

Roisin said her daughter hated the way that she felt, but didn’t understand why she felt like it.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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Did she talk about it again later or at other times and give you any more kind of concrete information about what was happening to her?

Yeah, this is going to sound strange, she did but she wasn’t able to necessarily articulate in a way that was clear but I totally understood it. I still think her dad is completely none the wiser. But I think I got it because that’s how I feel most of the time. She, you know, sort of said things like about just feeling, just didn’t, hated the way that she felt but she didn’t understand why she felt like it. Never felt like she, she didn’t feel like she fitted in anywhere and the way that she felt was sort of like, sort of almost a self-loathing but not understanding why. And I was like, well, yeah, welcome to my world [laughs]. 

And that’s exactly how I felt at that age and that’s exactly how I feel now at the age of forty five, most of the time, quite frankly, and there are a lot of people around who do feel like that. But you just have to learn to deal with it. And we have like a bit of a, sort of joke about it, like a private joke between us now that, you know, that we’re both sort of a bit strange and a bit awkward and we’re both a bit nerdy [laughs]. But, you know, nerdy is now the new sexy, apparently, so that’s all right [laughs]. 

So yeah, in a way so she did go on to explain it and I was like, “Yeah, but I understand that completely that’s it, it’s, you’re not the only person that feels like that. That’s how I felt.” And, you know, she now knows that, obviously, she’d known about my drinking, yeah, but she now knows about the fact that I had an eating disorder and stuff and that she, you know, she can see that what she did was just a different way of expressing what I did through an eating disorder. So she sort of, now she sort of, now she’s seventeen, she’s nearly eighteen now and she’s got a much better understanding of, you know, sort of almost acceptance I hope, in the way that I have, that, you know, okay, I’m a bit different. I’m not necessarily like everybody else and I don’t necessarily deal with things in the way that other people do, but that’s all right as long as I recognise my behaviour and recognise why I think I want to behave in certain ways, then you can deal with it.
 

Jo’s daughter felt worthless after being bullied at school She said she self-harmed partly to punish herself and partly to relieve the tension.

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Jo’s daughter felt worthless after being bullied at school She said she self-harmed partly to punish herself and partly to relieve the tension.

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She seemed a perfectly happy teenager. She had a bit of an issue with bullying at her secondary school and we involved the school and the school were, I felt, very supportive but she said that the school didn’t fulfil their obligations actually in school, but again, I only found that out afterwards. And she dates it back to that time that was when she started feeling different, ostracised, that she wanted to punish herself, that nobody understood her and that she had very poor self-esteem and self-worthlessness and things like that.

And does she say why she does it?

She says she does it partly because she feels she has to do it because she has to hurt herself to punish herself. She has said that voices tell her, but part of it also seems to be it relieving something that’s fermenting, something that’s bubbling up inside her, agitation, not stress, anxiety, catastrophe, whatever it is and it often dissipates after that. It never quite goes, went away but there would be a release in that she would almost say, “Look what I’ve done.” And show me and we would then go into a slightly more normal interaction where I could physically care for her wounds and so there was a positive experience for me that I felt I was being a mother, a rescuer, a professional, a carer, something nice in her life. 
 

For Ruth’s daughter, self-harm was a way of expressing pain.

For Ruth’s daughter, self-harm was a way of expressing pain.

Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
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She definitely sees it as a way of expressing her pain. She sees it as a way of counteracting emotional, deep emotional pain and replacing it with physical pain. And I can see how that, that would be the case. I can understand that. And I’d certainly understand it if it was somebody else’s kid. I could, I could say, “Oh, well, that’s, you know, that’s how it is.” It’s just, it’s just awful when it’s your own child. She dresses in, I mean I think she always looks really nice usually, actually. You know, I don’t disapprove at all of the way that she chooses to dress and her hair and her make-up and everything. And she’s a really, I know I’m obviously biased, but she’s an attractive girl and she’s got a wonderful personality and she’s bright and everything. And I think that that’s a separate issue to this altogether, I really do. And, and, it was certainly, it was her words, it was her, it was her choice of phrase to say that that was how she expressed herself, as if it went along with everything else about her appearance and her tastes.
Fiona's son said to her, simply, 'I just hurt so much inside mum and nobody can see it. If I do this people can say, "Oh, that's sore" and understand how much I hurt inside'.

Difficulties with parents
Some young people told their parents that they blamed one or both of them for the feelings that led them to self-harm and some said it was a way of trying to make their parents understand how bad they felt. Jo-Ann's daughter said she couldn't cope with the thought of her mum having a physical relationship with a new partner. Isobel's daughter, sitting in the A & E department, 'started saying she blamed me and her dad' among other things in her life. 
 

Jo-Ann said her daughter finds it difficult to feel that people she loves are bad, so she cuts to stop those feelings.

Jo-Ann said her daughter finds it difficult to feel that people she loves are bad, so she cuts to stop those feelings.

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What does she say herself about the reasons for her self-harming?

Well, I, after I left her dad I had another relationship, a seven year relationship, which ended in July, and she says that she was self-harming because she can’t, she couldn’t cope with the thought of me having a physical relationship with somebody because for her, it’s bad and evil and dirty. And so for the person that she loves most in the world to be bad, she can’t deal with. So I didn’t realise that she was self-harming because of that. She got on very well with my partner, never, in fact, probably I was the one that felt left out in the [laughs] relationship quite often. But it was just that she feels that people in general are bad and finds it difficult to, finds it difficult to feel that people that she loves are bad and so she cuts to stop to stop her feeling those feelings because it concentrates her emotions. It focuses her emotions on something physical. And so I don’t know for the rest of the time. I think that’s, that’s a newish thing but those feelings have got more extreme now and so the thought of me having another relationship is very, very frightening for her, very frightening and she is really struggling. She’s got the crisis team coming at the moment to, to help her. And so that’s, for these years, that’s her reasoning. 
 

Wendy said that her daughter 'holds it against us' for not taking more seriously her problems with food and weight.

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Wendy said that her daughter 'holds it against us' for not taking more seriously her problems with food and weight.

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
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She went back to the GP then on her own. I think it was mostly because of the weight issue then but you see, we, at the time, she I mean, yeah, we blame ourselves that maybe we should have done something about it at the time, but at the time, they were all drama queens. They were all fifteen year old drama queens looking for some drama and we observed it with her friends and the peer pressure, you know, and I just, so yeah, so we blame ourselves for that and she holds that against us or she has done, you know, “I tried to tell you.” But, you know, so yeah, I think she was mad at us over that and that’s why she would do the things to cause to cause attention, to bring our attention to the fact that she is not coping.
 

Nicky’s daughter said she started to self-harm because she wanted to show her father just how bad she felt.

Nicky’s daughter said she started to self-harm because she wanted to show her father just how bad she felt.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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I don’t know if that was when it first started.  I suspect there had probably been elements of self-harm before that. When we’ve talked about it, she has said that she said that she started to self-harm because of her dad’s mental health issues.  Everything is always about him. He’s always the centre of absolutely everything, even now, you know, at fifty odd, he’s still, everything is still always about him and she said to me, “I felt really dreadful. I was depressed. I wasn’t coping. I wanted to hurt myself.” And he’d just go, “You haven’t got any reason to feel like that. Grow-up.” Sort of attitude and she said, “and I did it because I wanted to show him just how bad I felt.” And she says that was why she started and she does say that she did start before she moved here but I think she must have been self-harming before that, cutting before that but I wasn’t aware of it.
Although she didn't blame her parents as such, Vicki's daughter made it clear that she was still struggling with her parents separating and felt that 'a lot of the upset started right back then'. Sarah Y's daughter gave a range of explanations for her two overdoses, including being 'very upset about things dad said to me'.
 

Sarah Y could not work out 'what was going on inside her head' even after hearing her daughter's explanations for her overdoses.

Sarah Y could not work out 'what was going on inside her head' even after hearing her daughter's explanations for her overdoses.

Age at interview: 42
Sex: Female
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She said it was because she had stomach pains and it just wasn’t going but it ended up being sort of a small overdose but clearly she’s quite angry about a lot of things from her childhood and growing up. She does have difficulty dealing with them because she does have learning difficulties, social difficulties. I would say she’s on the autistic spectrum. She also academically finds studies very difficult. So that was really I think the beginning of sort of self-harming sort of thing and I don’t know whether it was an intentional self-harm. I could never get to the bottom of it. She then said she was fine. She didn’t mean to hurt herself. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t trying to do anything like that so we left it and moved on. 

For the first evening, when asked, she just responded with, “I don’t know.” Until something was said about her dad and then she said, “Oh yeah, I’m very upset about things my dad said to me.” Well, yeah, he said some unpleasant things but often if she wants a scapegoat and, you know, you learn to read your children. Yes, sometimes she’ll do things because she’s upset about what’s said and you, there’s a manner she has when she’s upset about something he’s said in the past and she’ll talk to me about it. But this was one of those times when it didn’t seem to quite ring true. It just seemed to be, “That way people will stop asking me why I’ve done it.” And so I mean, I think I even said to the doctor that night, “I don’t know what to feel because I’m at a loss as to why she’s done it. I just cannot work out what’s going on inside her head in order to make her do this.” 

I really don’t know what’s going on in her head because it so much was out of the blue. It wasn’t she’s been having trouble with this or, you know, something had been troubling her, you know, and building up. It was just out of the blue and I, you know, the next day when I said things to her about why did she do it, she came out with different, “Oh, I was feeling really low.” Or, “I was just testing myself to see how strong I am.” And, you know, there were several other reasons and when you don’t know why somebody has done it, you think, “Well, will they do it again.” 
Influence of other young people self-harming
Occasionally, young people identified very specific things which made them more likely to self-harm. Although we know from other studies that young people are often influenced by friends who self-harm, only a few young people had spoken to their parents about this. 
 

Debbie’s daughter said she felt like a failure if she didn’t self-harm because everybody else in hospital was self-harming.

Debbie’s daughter said she felt like a failure if she didn’t self-harm because everybody else in hospital was self-harming.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
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I’ve had talks with my daughter because, obviously, from our point of view, when we see her going in there, we had the idealistic view, you go into hospital, get better and come out like you would with a physical ailment I suppose. But she went in and really deteriorated.  We couldn’t understand it and we were asking our family therapist at the time what,’ is this normal?’ and she was like, “Yes, a lot of young people do this.” But it, there was a tendency to have a knock-on effect that if somebody else had self-harmed in the day, it would trigger other youngsters to do the same thing. So I had this talk with my daughter and she said that she feels like a failure if she didn’t self-harm because everybody else in there was self-harming quite badly, if she didn’t do it, then she felt like a failure and she shouldn’t be there. So that’s why the self-harm then it went onto blades and razors and things like that.
 

Vicki's daughter said she was more likely to self-harm when she was upset and worried about her friend.

Vicki's daughter said she was more likely to self-harm when she was upset and worried about her friend.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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She said she was really struggling. And I knew that she had a friend, who was going through various different problems of his own, and he had, in fact, taken an overdose and he was all right again but she was really worried about him. And quite often he would contact her and then go off radar, which I thought was a little bit unfair on her that that she was being told, “Oh, I feel bad. I feel suicidal.” And then he would he would go off radar and she would she would be feeling, you know, really, really anxious about that. And she said that she felt most like self-harming when she was upset about him.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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