Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Effects on the family

Living with a young person who self-harms can have a major effect on family relationships. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about their families and how they had been affected (see also ‘Impact on parents and carers’, ‘Impact on siblings’).

Many parents described the stress experienced by the whole family. Debbie and Sandra said it was like ‘walking on eggshells’. The devastating effect of his daughter’s self-harming and eating disorder was ‘like a tsunami’ for Jim. ‘It’s just been chaos,’ Ruth told us, ‘it’s really created a chaotic sort of existence for all of us in the house.’
The fear of triggering self-harm made it difficult for families to cope with adolescent behaviour. Debbie told us: ‘She’s a teenager and they all have these strops. We can’t get used to them now so if she goes and strops in her bedroom and goes upstairs, we’re panicking. What’s she doing? Is there something she can harm herself with?’ Tracey struggled with ‘a desperate situation’ where her son’s difficult behaviour affected everyone in the family. Jackie talked about ‘horrific’ fights and family arguments. Charles said the effect on family life was ‘very negative indeed. It makes us all very nervous and anxious ourselves’.
Tracey realised that when all attention is focused on the person self-harming this can have a negative impact on family relationships: ‘You have to try to still maintain a relationship with your partner, with the other children, because they are struggling with it as well and they’re all dealing with it in different ways.’ 

Sometimes the young person was unaware of the pain they were causing their family. Audrey said her young husband didn’t understand that when he hurts himself ‘he hurts me. That hurts our family’. She acknowledged that he tried to shield their children from his distress. Other young people did realise that they were affecting their family. Debbie’s family were open in expressing their feelings. ‘She knows it worries us,’ Debbie told us, ‘but she tries to reassure us that she would never do anything so risky that she’d have to go to hospital’. 
Although families were often challenged and tested by young people's self-harming, some parents also talked about strong relationships within the family that helped them to get through. 'When it's good you enjoy the goodness,' Sandra said, 'when it's bad you work through it as a family.' Jackie thought the family’s sense of humour helped them: ‘We are a close family, we’ve got it through being able to have fun together. We have a right giggle, we’ve got a good sense of humour. Not everyone’s fortunate enough to have that kind of unit. So that’s what’s got us through ultimately.’ Sometimes parents felt that self-harming helped to bring the family closer together.

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