Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Telling others – reactions of family and friends to self-harm

There are many different reactions to the news that someone is self-harming. Some responses may be unhelpful and make things more difficult for the person who is harming themselves and those who care for them. Many of the parents and carers we spoke to chose to tell only family members and a few close friends about the young person’s problems (see 'Telling other people’).

Many of the parents we talked to had separated from their child’s other parent, and some were living with new partners. Thirty-five of the thirty-nine people we interviewed were women. They spoke about the ways their partners reacted to self-harm. One common theme was a perception that fathers and step-fathers couldn’t understand why the young person would want to hurt themselves.
Joanne said of her ex-husband: ‘He can’t cope with it. I’ve given him books to read and he can’t understand it at all. He can’t understand why she would want to hurt herself because it hurts. I’ve tried to explain that she doesn’t feel the hurt and it’s a way of relieving the pain that she’s going through but he doesn’t understand that. It doesn’t matter what you say, what books you tell him to read, he will not understand it.’ Alexis thought her daughter’s father didn’t understand mental health issues. ‘He didn’t really understand a very confused sixteen year old.’

Several women talked about the difficulty their husbands had in showing their feelings. Sharon explained how her ex-husband’s practical approach worked well alongside her own more emotional reactions. ‘He’s very good with the practical side of things, whereas I can get more of a handle on how she’s feeling emotionally.’ A few fathers were angry. Susan Z said, ‘He tends to get angry rather than upset. But I don’t think he ever expressed that.’ Liz’s husband was angry at times at how self-harm and eating disorders had affected the family. 
Some men dealt with their feelings by withdrawing and refusing to talk. Wendy said her husband was embarrassed and ashamed by his daughter’s self-harm. He didn’t know how to deal with it so he pretended it wasn’t happening. Bernadette’s husband told her “I can’t take any more. Don’t tell me”. She found this hard because she then had no one to talk to. Jackie agreed that it was difficult for her husband to deal with.
Other women talked about positive and supportive reactions from men. Gwendoline said her husband 'knows a good way to talk to people' and that when they had 'happenings' in the house, he was 'normally the one that calms it all down.' Vicki told us that her ex-husband was very concerned about their daughter's self-harming and was 'making an effort to change the way he interacts with her' when she visits him at weekends.

Pat gave us a man’s point of view. He thought his ex-wife’s emotional response was unhelpful. Charles said his wife believed their son’s behaviour could be explained by normal difficulties of adolescence.
Parents told us how brothers and sisters reacted (see also ‘Impact on siblings’). Some were angry and felt that self-harming was selfish. Bernadette’s son was so angry with his brother that he humiliated him by telling people in the pub about the self-harm. One of Isobel’s daughters wanted to be supportive but the other was irritated by her sister’s behaviour. Some older siblings were understanding and supportive.
Wider family
On the whole people told us relatives in their wider family were supportive but many didn’t understand self-harm. Sarah Y said her brother ‘finds it really impossible to understand. He hasn’t got children himself’. Alexis told us her daughter’s grandfather and uncle ‘didn’t get it. They don’t understand it. ..It’s too hard for them.’ However, her daughter’s grandmother did understand and this was a huge support for Alexis. A few relatives, like Nicky’s sister-in-law and Jo-Ann’s family, were critical, especially when they had little experience of self-harm.
Apart from immediate family, many of the people we spoke to chose to tell a few close friends. They were often surprised by their reactions. One of Jane S’s friends was shocked and disgusted, while another treated it very casually, saying “Aren’t teenagers a nuisance”. ‘This was just so off the mark,’ Jane told us, ‘that it made me despair’. Fiona’s friends tried to help but they didn’t understand. She explained: ‘It’s very difficult because friends, the ones that know, try and come beside you but it’s too big. Unless someone has been through something like this they can’t really understand. You can’t really talk to them about the trauma of it because it’s almost like you’re making it up because it’s so horrific’. 
Several parents had friends who reacted in a helpful way. Tracey told us: ‘Talking to some people who you can trust, it can really help, just to help you get by, just by talking about it. They can’t do anything about it. This particular friend of mine, if she could wave a magic wand, things would be different. She can’t but she listens and tries to reassure and doesn’t judge and that’s really important.’

Last reviewed December 2017.
​Last updated December 2017.

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