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Self-harm in young people is a large and growing problem. A young person’s self-harming behaviour can have an impact on the entire family, but very little research has explored this topic.

The impact of self harm on the whole family

To find out more, researchers from the Centre for Suicide Research spoke to parents of young people who had self-harmed to hear about the emotional, physical and practical effects the discovery of self-harm had on them. Thirty-two mothers, including one adoptive mother, and five fathers explained the effect of self-harm on themselves and their families. Pseudonyms were assigned to all participants.

Finding out about the self-harm was very upsetting for parents. Amber explained, “At first, when you see these marks on your child's beautiful skin, you're just filled with every emotion that you can possibly think of - fear, anxiety, disbelief, anger and just not knowing what to do.”

Parents thought the self-harm also had an ongoing impact on their own mental and physical health.

 

I couldn't stop crying… I was really upset, couldn't sleep.
- Jocelyn

 

Some parents became depressed or anxious and others described physical symptoms such as weight loss, chest pains or physical exhaustion.

Relationships also suffered. Relationships with partners could become strained, and the difficulty of coping with the self-harm could affect the relationship with the young person’s grandparents. Parents worried about family members overreacting or getting upset, as well as about judgment and blame. Some parents felt trapped in the middle – coping with their child’s problems and their parents’ problems (including ill-health) at the same time.

The reaction of the child’s siblings varied. Some became extremely upset or angry while others tried to be supportive. Siblings may feel responsible - trying to avoid irritating their brother or sister lest they self-harm. Charles’ daughter had to “bite her tongue… and feels very constrained about what she can say or do with her brother [lest he self-harm]… it’s a great worry for her.” School-age siblings may feel the stigma of a sibling’s self-harm. For example, Denise’s son did not want his friends to know about his sister’s self-harm. “There's been a big issue because he's just kept the whole thing secret so none of his friends know.  He doesn't talk about it because he thinks that people will bully him [by saying], “Oh your sister self-harms.”

Parents often felt isolated, partially because they wanted to keep a child’s problems private. This secrecy could be a problem, because friendships could function as important sources of support. Friends who also had experience of a relative’s self-harm or psychiatric problems could be particularly helpful, and parents appreciated hearing about others’ experiences. Vanessa said, “Just hearing other people's stories makes you feel like you're less alone... you can gain a lot of strength from that.”

Many parents reported that their child’s self-harm had a detrimental effect on the family’s financial situation, often by making it difficult for parents to maintain a full-time job. To be available for their child, parents took paid or unpaid leave and some gave up work entirely. Georgia “chose not to work because I didn't want to go out… If I did have to go out, I was fearful [about] what I would find when I came home.” Money was often also spent on private psychiatric care or counselling for the child.

Overall, parents were hopeful about the future, although they worried about their child’s ability to cope as an adult. Parents would appreciate having more information about self-harm and the opportunity to hear about the experiences of other families.

Excerpts of these interviews and more information about parent experience of a young person’s self-harm can be viewed at Health Talk

The paper is open-access and can be found here