Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Telling other people

A major concern for families of young people who are self-harming is whether to tell other people about it, how much to tell and who to tell. The parents and carers we spoke to had different views on this.
Some parents, like Jane Z, tried to keep the self-harm secret from most people. They gave various reasons for this decision. Several felt ashamed and worried that the family would be blamed. Sarah Y told us ‘I am reluctant to say too much to many people because you are concerned about what people are going to say to you, blame you, “Well, you’ve obviously failed them as a parent.” And you do feel that and it’s horrid.’ Jo wasn’t ashamed of her daughter, but chose not to tell many people because she was unsure of their reactions. ‘It can be very lonely,’ she admitted. ‘Yes, you can tell everybody but people will then cross the road to avoid talking to you or they’ll get the wrong impression …or they’ll come round and interfere and you don’t always want that.’ Dot and Susan Y wanted to protect their children from being judged. Jim said he didn’t want to have to explain to other people because ‘the reality is so awful, you don’t want to shock them’. 
Parents and carers had to decide whether to tell other family members. Sarah A, Ruth, Tracey and Dot were reluctant to upset elderly parents and grandparents. Some mothers didn’t tell their husbands all the details of their child’s self-harm. Ann thought it might upset her husband; Gwendoline didn’t want to worry her husband when he was working away from home. Jackie said she didn’t tell her husband at first because she knew ‘he couldn’t cope with it because he couldn’t understand it. I knew that he’d maybe make the situation worse by saying “Is this just for attention?” And he did say that.’ Others were careful how much they told their other children. Dot didn’t remember telling them anything (the self-harm was nearly twenty years ago) but wondered if her daughter had confided in her older brother. Vicki hadn’t told her daughter’s step-brother because she suspected he would be unsympathetic: ‘He might have gone, “Er, like sort yourself out.”’
Sometimes secrecy made things more difficult for the people we spoke to. Susan Y avoided going on holiday with family members who were unaware of her daughter’s self-harm because she didn’t want them to see the scars. Gwendoline is a very open person who wouldn’t usually hide things, so she withdrew from group situations where she would normally talk about her family. Ruth said it was ‘quite alienating’ not to speak openly. Jane Z thought secrecy added to the pressures on her daughter (see earlier). 
Not all parents chose to keep the self-harm secret. When Anna discovered her daughter was self-harming she ‘called in the cavalry’ and decided to be very open with everybody from the outset. ‘Basically everything that she did, we blew open’ she told us, ‘and we made it very clear to her that there were no secrets’. Nicky thought it was important to talk about self-harm so that people would understand it better.

See also ‘Telling others – family and friends’ reactions’.

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