Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Talking about self-harm with the young person

Parents we interviewed had different experiences of talking to their children about self-harm. Some found this difficult, but others had very close relationships and the young people could talk openly about their feelings and the reasons for self-harm. Alexis said she’s always been able to communicate with her daughter. Tracey and Jackie talked to their children about the dangers of cutting and ways to do it safely. Jane S emphasised the importance of keeping up a dialogue: ‘That’s been really important to her because she’s identified things for herself and wanted to work on it’. 
Pat is close to his daughter but finds it hard to understand her. ‘Luckily she does talk to me,’ he told us. ‘We talk about it but it hasn’t improved my knowledge at all. I think we’re as close as a fifteen year old can be with her dad, but that just makes it worse, in a selfish way. I can’t say to her “But we never communicate.”’ Even when young people could talk about their feelings, many were reluctant to tell their parents about their self-harm. ‘She clammed up and wouldn’t tell me anything about it,’ Ruth told us. ‘The worst thing I can do is ask her about it because she just goes crazy. And I know it’s because she thinks I’m trying to make her feel guilty enough to stop.’ When Sharon tried to talk to her daughter about her wounds ‘she just refused point blank’. Liz’s daughter ‘wouldn’t talk about the cutting behaviour but she would talk about her mood and say she was low and wanted leaving alone’. Liz thought she was deeply ashamed of the cutting. Nicky thought part of her daughter’s early unwillingness to talk was down to ‘normal teenage behaviour’, though now they have a 'lovely relationship' and can talk easily. Sharon, Tam and Wendy’s children all said they hadn’t told their mothers they were harming themselves because they didn’t want to upset them. 
Young people may have difficulties finding someone to talk to about their feelings. 
Dot’s daughter had talked to her GP before telling her mother about her self-harm – Dot said the GP must have been brilliant. From that point on her daughter was talking to her all the time.

Parents developed various strategies when their children wouldn’t talk to them. Ruth decided not to say anything about her daughter’s problems (she had been sexually assaulted) because she didn’t want to make things worse. Some, like Liz, Jackie and Anna, learned to wait for the right moment to try to talk. Liz said, ‘I’d learnt a lot during the passage of these few years and it’s about picking your moment to bring things up. I didn’t jump in, which is what I would have done two years previously. I waited until we were together. She was relaxed and I said, “Are you cutting yourself?” And she went, “Yeah.”’ Sarah Z and her daughter set up a diary system so they could communicate in writing instead of talking. Wendy would have liked family counselling to help her and her daughter talk together.
Vicki is a professional counsellor and stressed the importance of talking as a family. Joanna was grateful to her daughter for teaching her about self-harm. ‘She has changed my mindset’, she told us. ’It’s such an eye-opener. It’s been amazing because I would have been completely different, completely shut off.’ This has been helpful for her professional life as well as her personal life. She works with young people and is now able to be non-judgemental and relaxed when they tell her about self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
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Last reviewed December 2017.

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