Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Discovering self-harm

We asked parents how they first discovered that their child was self-harming. This could be a sudden shocking revelation or a gradual realisation that all was not well. Erica only found out that her daughter had taken an overdose after she collapsed and empty blister packs were found in her room. Many parents had noticed scratches or wounds and asked their child how these had been caused. Sandra saw blood on her daughter’s clothes; Bernadette noticed burn marks on her son’s hands. In some cases the young person denied deliberately harming themselves: Jo-Ann’s daughter said she had scratched her arm on brambles, and Sarah Y’s daughter told her mother she had taken an overdose because she had stomach pains. Some parents found it hard to believe the truth. Jane S thought her daughter must have scratched herself accidentally but realised later that she had cut herself. Alexis believed her daughter when she said marks on her arm were caused by rubbing against a wall. 
Several parents learnt about the self-harm from the young person themselves. Annette rushed to save her son when he phoned to tell her what he had done. Nicky’s daughter woke her to say she had taken an overdose; later Nicky thought she had been cutting herself before this. Joanna’s daughter showed her wounds to her mother and was able to talk to her freely, but two of the young people disclosed their self-harm through notes to their parents. Young people may be reluctant to talk to their parents (see also ‘Talking about self-harm with the young person’) and may take care to hide the signs of self-harm. Ruth said her daughter ‘clammed up’ and wouldn’t tell her anything when she asked about cuts on her arms. 
Several parents first learnt of their child’s self-harm when they were contacted by teachers or hospital staff who had noticed signs of cutting or burning. Isobel, Tam and Pat were told by one of their other children, while Susan Z and Roisin were alerted by a friend of their child. Three parents had discovered the self-harm through reading their child’s diary.
As Gwendoline’s experience shows, self-harm may go on for a long time before parents become aware of it. Joanne found out about her daughter’s self-harm when she was fourteen, but said, ‘She’s confessed to me that she started doing it when she was nine and she’s hidden it all that time.’ Liz thought her daughter had been secretly cutting herself for about a year before it became obvious. Jackie commented ‘When it started and when I noticed are completely different things.’

For some parents the discovery was their first experience of self-harm whereas others knew the signs to look out for. Ann said this was the first time she’d come across somebody who self-harmed. ‘It had never been in my world up to that point.’ Sarah Z told us ‘I didn’t know anything really about it. I knew it existed but had no personal experience of it or knew anybody who had any personal experience of it. So it sort of came from nowhere to us.’ Sharon’s daughter said the marks on her arms were the result of general knocks and bumps but Sharon had personal experience of self-harm and could see that she had caused them herself. 
While many parents were able to recall vividly the moment they discovered their child’s self-harm, Philip and Mary couldn’t remember when they first realised that their son was cutting himself, and Liz said there was no ‘light-bulb moment’ when she became aware of her daughter’s self-harm, but it was something that gradually became obvious.

Last reviewed December 2017.

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