Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Impact on siblings

Self-harm by young people can have profound effects on their brothers and sisters. We asked parents and carers to tell us how their other children had reacted.

Parents had to decide how much to tell their other children about the self-harm. This is often very difficult. Jo said she didn’t share all the details with her elder daughter because she felt guilty that her daughter was having to support her. When her younger daughter found knives in her sister’s bedroom Jackie lied to her, saying she needed the knives to open letters or chop up clothes. Ruth and Sandra wanted to make sure their other children didn’t think that self-harm was normal behaviour. Sharon’s son was upset that ‘he hadn’t been there for his sister’ when Sharon told him what had been happening, but she reassured him that it wasn’t his responsibility.
Witnessing self-harm was distressing for brothers and sisters, like Sandra’s daughter. Charles’s son was very upset when his brother cut himself and then called him on his mobile phone. Jane S said her other children were badly affected and often scared. Her younger daughter coped by hiding anything her sister could use for self-harm. Joanne told us that her daughter had to be aware ‘at a very young age’ that the family couldn’t have tablets and razors around. Erica’s daughter was ‘very shaken and very upset’ by her sister’s overdose. Pat said his eleven year old son was ‘in floods of tears’ when he thought his sister had taken another overdose. 

Some brothers and sisters found it hard to understand why their sibling was self-harming, and parents thought this might have influenced their reactions. 
‘He didn’t understand it’, Alexis said of her son. ‘It’s a very emotional thing and maybe some men are not at that emotional level where they can understand. I think he felt she should pull herself together and stop it.’ Wendy thought her son’s angry reaction was partly because he didn’t understand his sister: ‘Her brother just could not cope with what she was doing. It freaked him out. He outwardly was angry with her and gave her verbal abuse, because he didn’t understand what was going on.’

Several parents told us about the anger expressed by their other children. Some siblings thought the person who was self-harming was selfish and attention seeking. Fiona’s son and daughter wouldn’t talk to their brother because they were so angry at his behaviour. They were also angry that their mother had gone into debt through supporting him financially. Bernadette’s son was so angry with his brother that he started a fight with him. He accused his brother of breaking his mother’s heart. Fiona and Jane S told us that their children too had been angry at the effect of the self-harm on their mother.
Parents were aware that their other children sometimes felt neglected. Erica said her older daughter ‘was almost ignored’ for two years because her needs didn’t seem as great as her sister’s. Susan Z thought her daughter felt that over the years her sister got all the attention. Jo admitted that her older daughter got ‘pushed aside’. Charles and Gwendoline told us how their daughters had to make allowances for their sibling’s behaviour.
A few parents spoke about further effects on their children. Her sister’s self-harming put such stress on Joanne’s daughter that she had to take time off sick from school. Joanne emphasised the need to support siblings as well as parents. She hoped the school would provide something, but there was nothing at all. Jane S said her daughters were affected so badly that she had to make allowances for them, contacting their school when they were upset, falling behind with work or arguing with other pupils. Joanna and Liz’s other daughters themselves started self-harming.

Although brothers and sisters had mixed responses to their sibling’s self-harm, many of them were sympathetic and supportive. Ruth, Gwendoline, and Jane Z described close, loving relationships. Sharon told us her son was ‘there for his sister’, supporting her and making her laugh, which was good for her. Some parents, like Liz and Ann, spoke of positive effects, such as becoming closer as a family and more aware of other people’s feelings.

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