Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Impacts on parents and carers

Self-harm by a young person can have a major impact on those who care for them. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about different ways in which they had been affected.

Fiona emphasised the stress caused by a young person’s self-harm: ‘It’s taken its toll of my health and things as well… people pooh-pooh stress, but my goodness it takes its toll.’ Ruth was pregnant and found it very hard to cope with her daughter’s behaviour. She felt as if she was ‘being torn in several different directions.’ Seeing her child ‘deface herself’ affected Ruth and her husband’s everyday life: ‘Nothing I can do is going to stop her, and that’s a really difficult thing to live with.’ Pat admitted that he had ‘taken it really badly’ and was drinking more than usual. Dot didn’t think her daughter’s self-harm had had much impact on her everyday life at the time, but she was still upset about it seventeen years later.
Several parents talked about the strain of monitoring their child’s behaviour. Tam said ‘It’s hard when you’re really tired at night to be like, oh I should really go check on her, make sure she’s okay, because sometimes you just want to go to bed.’ Annette was ‘running on red alert’ all the time and developed panic attacks (see Mental health section below). ‘I still watch everything’, Alexis told us. ‘I drive myself barmy at times. There will always be fear.’ 

Relationship with partner
Coping with a young person’s self-harm can put a strain on parents’ relationships. Tam wanted to spend time with her daughter but was aware of the needs of her husband and new baby. ‘I feel like I spread myself very thin’ she told us. Nicky’s second marriage was put under ‘a huge amount of strain’ by conflicts between her daughter and husband, but he and Nicky have a strong relationship and were able to talk about coping strategies. Jane Z felt as if she ‘was going stir crazy’. She decided to put herself to one side and ‘just do whatever has to be done’. ‘I don’t think a husband and wife relationship can survive it, unless you both come to an agreement, that you are just putting life on hold, until this is sorted out,’ she explained. ‘Because if you try to make demands on each other, during the middle of this, you’re not going to survive it.’ 

Social life
Several parents described limitations on their social life. Philip and Mary’s hopes for a fulfilling retirement were affected when their son came home to live with them. ‘I’m at the age now where I’m thinking of being retired’, Philip said, ‘and it would be nice to be able to go off and do things with my wife and we can’t. I want my wife back.’ Mary was sometimes resentful that their son was so needy: ‘We would love to be able to go on holiday. We just don’t know whether we can leave him alone even for a few hours.’ Erica and Jane Z talked about their lack of social life. Fiona and Gwendoline avoided social situations where they might have to talk about their child. Jane S and her husband stopped going out together. ‘It was partly our fault,’ Jane told us, ‘because we were so tired and exhausted and completely overtaken by all the problems at home. And people stopped asking us because we probably weren’t much fun and we fell asleep.’ 
Work and financial impacts
Parents told us how their work and finances were affected. Several had to take time off work. Joanna, Erica and Anna were lucky to have understanding managers. Wendy was able to work flexi-time, but found it difficult to concentrate (see clip above). Debbie took a year’s career break so that she could be at home when her daughter needed her. Joanne’s employer understood her situation but she cut down her hours and felt she couldn’t move on in her job because she needed to stay local. Pat is self-employed. He was so exhausted by the strain of his daughter’s self-harm that he barely worked in five weeks. He also wanted to be at home when his daughter came back from school. The financial implications of this ‘were huge’ but Pat’s daughter was his main priority: ‘How much business it will cost me, I don’t know. I’m worried but I’m not bothered because compared to my little girl, it’s nothing, not a blip in the ocean.’ Ann had to increase her overdraft because of the costs involved in travelling to visit her daughter in hospital miles from home. Fiona said the expense of trips to Australia when her son attempted suicide meant she might lose her house.

Mental health
Several parents told us about the impact of their child’s problems on their own mental health. Some had been mentally unwell in the past and were still having treatment, but others thought that their symptoms were a result of the stress surrounding their child’s self-harm. Joanne told us how she felt when she first found out that her daughter was harming herself: ‘Oh I couldn’t stop crying. I was really upset, couldn’t sleep. I had three months off work and was put on antidepressants, which I take to this day and will never stop taking because they keep me sane.’ Jane S ‘went through the blackest time imaginable where I couldn’t even get out of the chair or answer the phone’. She also, like Annette and Wendy, had symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. She told us how her daughter’s eating disorder and self-harm ‘took its toll on my physical health and I think we forget, don’t we, that stress is actually not the pressure that’s on us but it’s the body’s response to that pressure, and stress clearly made me depressed but it also gave me chest pains and other physical symptoms.’

Parent/child relationship
When a young person harms themselves this often has an effect on their relationship with their parents. Some of the people we spoke to told us how difficult this had been. Jo-Ann’s daughter threatened to cut herself or leave home if her mother started a new relationship. 
Other parents felt that their relationship had improved. ‘The whole experience brought me closer’ said Joanna. Roisin thought that she and her daughter had a much better understanding of each other. Tam tries to listen to her daughter more. Although Annette’s son was angry with her for stopping him killing himself he later sent her a Mother’s Day card thanking her for her support and saying he didn’t know what he would do without her. Nicky is pleased that her daughter has matured emotionally and now recognises the pain she caused her mother. Nicky says her daughter appreciated the boundaries that Nicky set ‘so we’re fine and she’s fine and we have a lovely relationship.’

* This is a form of therapy (using individual and group work) that helps the young person to learn skills to manage their emotions, cope with distress and improve their relationships. DBT helps the young person see that their suicidal and other unhelpful behaviours are part of their way of coping with problems and encourages them to develop more helpful behaviours and solutions.

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