Self-harm: Parents' experiences

What parents and carers think are the reasons for self-harm

Many of the parents and carers who spoke to us had searched for some kind of explanation for young people's self-harming. They didn't always ask questions straightaway — sometimes they had to act urgently when the young person had taken an overdose or cut themselves deeply — but over time people tried to understand what had made the young person harm themselves, in some cases repeatedly. Sometimes, no matter how hard they looked for a reason, parents were just baffled by their children's self-harm.
Other parents gave a range of explanations, often describing a combination of many different factors, including the need to express painful feelings, the effects of puberty and teenage cultures, difficult relationships, experiences of abuse or mental health problems, and difficulties in early childhood. Some parents thought their own self-harm had influenced their children. Sometimes parents talked about what the young person themselves had said about their reasons for self-harming (see ‘Young people's explanations for self-harm’). 

Expressing emotion
Several parents described self-harm as a reaction to intensely felt emotion, such as self-hatred or anger. Hurting themselves might be the only way the young person felt they could cope with a crisis, which could go on for a long time. In this context self-harm could be a 'cry for help'. 
Life as a teenager
A few parents thought that 'teenage hormones' played a part in self-harming behaviour. Ruth initially thought it 'was a teenage thing' but later was 'scared' to find out that some adults self-harm. Some parents saw an element of manipulation in their child’s behaviour. Jo said that, “Sometimes I can be very sympathetic and sometimes I can’t because sometimes I think it is naughty behaviour”. Charles wondered if his son might be using the threat of self-harm to get his own way.

We know that peer pressure can be a factor in self-harm (see ‘Influence of friends and peers’); several parents thought their child had been influenced by ‘Goth’ or ‘Emo’ subcultures.
 Difficult relationships
There is evidence that family relationship problems can contribute to self-harm. Several parents talked about the impact of the break-up of their marriage, but this was also seen by some as just one part of a complex set of changes and challenges in the young person's life which included difficulties at school and in their personal relationships with family members, friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, and both parents. 
Result of abuse
Abusive experiences often contribute to young people self-harming. The abuse has usually occurred in childhood, but sometimes it was more recent. Early abuse most commonly takes place within the family. One woman spoke about her ex-husband sexually abusing his step-daughter and his own sons. Two of them later self-harmed. Others highlighted the impact of abusive relationships outside the family. 
Mental health problems
Mental health problems in the young person can also contribute to self-harm (see more about this in our section on ‘Mental health problems’). Many of the young people were depressed. Some had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder and some experienced upsetting visual or auditory hallucinations. Others had eating disorders, which some of the people we spoke to viewed as closely related to self-harm. 
Not everybody thought that self-harm was in itself a mental health problem: it could be seen as a way of coping, which to some extent 'worked' for the young person, though parents who saw it like this hoped their child would develop better coping strategies. Jane Z was relieved to see on a self-harm support website that ‘self-harm is not an illness’. Mary had come to the view that self-harm was to some extent part of everyday life.
Early childhood
Some parents looked back on the young person's early childhood behaviour, personality or experiences and saw the roots of self-harming there — as Jackie said, 'I could see it in the cards'. Jo-Ann described her infant daughter's frequent emotional ' tantrums', on one occasion threatening to throw herself from a bedroom window. Jane S talked about her daughter having 'high anxiety' and 'obsessive compulsive disorder' from a very young age. Alexis said that her daughter seemed to be unusually troubled emotionally from the age of about six. Sandra remembered that her daughter was 'demanding, impulsive and attention-seeking' when she was in primary school. Sandra believed this was a result of her daughter's traumatic birth, subsequent facial deformity and multiple corrective operations. Tracey also believed that physical illness in early childhood affected her son's emotional and social development and contributed to his current problems.

Parents' self-harming
People who self-harm are often aware of other family members with similar behaviour. Some parents talked about their own self-harming —including cutting and taking overdoses— and worried that they had influenced their children. Sharon said that her 'first fears', when she found out about her daughter's self-harm, were 'It’s my fault. It’s because I told her I did it, she started doing it, that’s what happened'. Jo-Ann, on the other hand, was strangely relieved when she found out that her daughter had started self-harming before she did.

Last reviewed December 2017.

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