Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Emotional reactions

People we spoke to told us they experienced a range of emotions when a young person was self-harming. Many were shocked and horrified at first. When Susan Y saw her daughter’s wounds she was ‘visibly shocked, very, very shocked that I’d not even noticed it. I’d not even seen it, I’d not seen the triggers, I’d not seen the signs or anything’. Gwendoline felt physically sick and stunned when she realised her daughter had started cutting again. Jane S said she was ‘beside herself with worry and shock and upset’.
The distress to families can be immense. It nearly broke Bernadette’s heart that her son could hate himself so much. ‘At the time,’ Annette explained, ‘you’re so distressed and distraught, it’s hard to think.’ Alexis felt that she was ‘becoming totally crazy.’ Audrey told us about the strain that her husband’s self-harm had placed on the family, and admitted she had been very angry. Anger was a common emotion for the people we spoke to. 
Alexis was also angry with her child and said ‘I felt angry at her for doing it to me. I mean she wasn’t doing it to me… she did it to herself but, at that time, your emotions are saying “How can you do this?”’ Other parents were angry about mismanagement of their child’s care or people who had caused distress for their child. Sandra was angry with God. ‘There were times when I was angry’, she told us, ‘I have a faith but there were times I couldn’t pray. I used to say, “God, why? Why? Why my daughter? She’s been through so much already. Couldn’t you just do something or intervene or stop her doing it?”’ Some parents tried to hide their anger. Ann was angry at first, but decided this was not helpful. ‘We don’t judge her. There’s no point getting angry or cross. You can cry in your own time, when you’re on your own and there’s nobody else about.’ 

Another common theme was anxiety and fear that their child might die by suicide. (See also ‘Fears and worries’). ‘I remember becoming really scared’, Alexis told us, “Is she going to do it again? Can I keep her safe?” I had even, in my head, I knew what my daughter’s funeral was going to be like.’ Annette said she was on 24-hour red alert and was so anxious she couldn’t sleep. Although some people who self-harm may die by suicide, this is very rare indeed.
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Most of the parents we talked to had felt guilty when their child self-harmed, perhaps feeling bad that they had not noticed their child’s distress or done something to prevent self-harm. Others blamed themselves for things like the breakup of a marriage which might have made their child unhappy, or questioned their early parenting skills. Two parents felt guilty that they might have passed on genes to their children which made them more likely to self-harm. People talked about their sense of shame and thinking they were a failure as a parent.
However, many had come to terms with their feelings of guilt: Tracey learnt through counselling that it was better to focus on what you can do rather than what you think you’ve done wrong. Alexis thought that guilt about the past was pointless as it didn’t help her be a good mother or a balanced person. Nicky’s Samaritan training enabled her to distance herself from feelings of guilt.
Several parents talked about feeling bewildered and confused. Nick said his first reaction was that it couldn’t really be happening. He felt ‘incredibly helpless’ and ‘absolutely clueless in terms of what you should do, what the next steps are.’ Sarah Y told a doctor when her daughter was admitted after an overdose: ‘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.’ Sarah felt totally bewildered. It was upsetting that she couldn’t help and didn’t know what to do. 
Even though they were struggling with many different emotions, parents tried to hide their feelings from their child. Liz reacted practically when bandaging her daughter’s cuts, but afterwards she ‘fell apart’. Anna said there was no point screaming and shouting at her daughter because that wasn’t going to work and it was clear that she needed some help. Roisin tried to appear calm when her daughter described her cutting to a doctor, but was ‘screaming inside’. She said the last thing her daughter needed was ‘some hysterical woman crying uncontrollably saying “Why do you do these terrible things?”’ Joanne has gone through so much that she now feels numb: ‘Actually, I don’t get upset anymore because I’m just numb so I just get on. I don’t forget about my daughter but forget all the things that she’s done and just keep looking forwards because that’s all I can do.’
 

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