Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Towards recovery from self-harming

Although self-harm in young people is common, it is generally not long-lasting. After a while most young people stop harming themselves, although a minority continue for a few years. The parents and carers we spoke to told us about things which they thought had helped the young person stop self-harming.

Several parents talked about their children becoming more mature and gaining insight as they grew up. Ann’s daughter decided to move out of the family home. Ann supported this: ‘I never ever would have thought when that girl was seventeen, eighteen that she’d be capable of living independently but she does and she’s got a greater self-awareness now.’ Anna said her daughter now had ‘an adult brain’ which enabled her to express her feelings: ‘maturity aided her situation hugely’. When asked why she thought her daughter had stopped self-harming Isobel told us ‘There’s a natural growing up anyway. There’s a lot of difference between fifteen and seventeen.’ Her daughter was going to college and had friends. ‘She’s more able to talk about what’s going on before it builds up, and she’s still seeing CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service].’
Sometimes changing circumstances influenced the young person’s recovery. Nick thought a combination of his daughter’s sessions with a psychologist and ‘the fact that she’s moved on to a much nicer boy in terms of relationships’ certainly helped. Annette’s son now has a child of his own. She told us: ‘there are moments when he has a low mood, and I’m watchful but definitely, I mean he’s just happy and he’s out there and he’s got friends and he’s got his life back together.’ Isobel’s daughter was much happier when she left school to go to college, where she made friends and enjoyed her course. Jane S said that when her daughter took a gap year instead of going on to university ‘having the pressure taken away from her academically, and just having a bit more fun, she felt her load was lightened.’ Anna’s daughter has applied to university, and she has career goals and a good social network. Anna said ‘you wouldn’t think this was the same child as two years ago’.
Parents told us how the therapy their child received had helped. Ann was pleased that her daughter had engaged with mental health services. ‘She had such intensive therapy,’ she explained, ‘they really did get to the nitty gritty of a lot of things that had happened to her and got her to acknowledge them and see that she wasn’t to blame. …Before, she would internalise it and self-harm.’ After Dot’s daughter talked to a counsellor she said, “I don’t think I’ll cut myself again.” Some of the young people were still in contact with mental health services. Anna’s daughter hasn’t self-harmed for two years but is still seeing a psychiatrist in family sessions in connection with bereavement. Some parents stressed how important it was to keep taking medication (see also ‘Medication’). 
Many of the young people had learned various coping strategies which helped them resist the urge to self-harm. Nicky’s daughter told her that she hadn’t cut for nine months. ‘I was really proud of her,’ said Nicky. ‘I told her how proud I was that she’d reached a point in terms of her own recovery that she was able to see that there were other coping strategies that worked better for her that she could apply.’ 
The support of family and friends was also seen as having an important role in helping the young people reduce their self-harming. Jane S said her daughter ‘identified having really good family support as being instrumental in her recovery’. Sandra helped her daughter in various ways. When she noticed her daughter was using her nails to harm herself Sandra told her she had beautiful nails. She massaged her daughter’s hands and used ointment to soothe the wounds. ‘And when she saw that I wasn’t reacting,’ Sandra told us, ‘I think eventually she just stopped.’
A young person’s determination and desire to stop self-harming was seen as a key factor on the way to recovery. Ann had come across many people who didn’t want to engage with mental health services, but said of her daughter: ‘she does care. She wants to get well. She wants a better life for herself and I think she knows deep down she deserves one, but it’s just her having the confidence and ability to get that… She’s up for the challenge.’ Nicky noticed that her daughter’s self-cutting became much less significant once she ‘really started to engage in the process of dealing with the mental health issues and getting herself better.’ Anna thought her daughter had come to a greater understanding of things that had happened in the past, and now felt ‘very secure and safe within herself’. Anna told us: ‘I get the distinct feeling that she wants to wrap it up and move on, and that the self-harm was an episode within all this, albeit a very serious one.’ Jane S said her daughter didn’t want to go to university ‘feeling and looking like a freak’, so ‘there was definite desire there to try to overcome this seriously’ (see clip above).
Even when their children had reduced their self-harming, parents were aware that it was a difficult struggle. Sandra said her daughter ‘still has the thoughts because she’ll tell me but she says, “Mum, you know, I’m surviving day by day. It’s a fight. It’s a fight to survive," but, she says, “I’m not quitting because you’ve taught me not to quit and you’ve taught me to keep going.” …She says, “There are times when I’m faced with fear and fearful situations and I feel that I can’t cope and I can’t make it, I think about what you say and that keeps me going”.’ Some parents worried that the self-harm would begin again if their child faced further problems. In contrast, Anna thought her daughter’s self-harm was ‘a transient episode that was going to burn itself out at some point.’
Although it might take a long time, most young people who self-harm eventually stop.

Last reviewed December 2017.

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