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Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

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Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

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Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

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Hi, my child had been self-harming sometimes. They have professional help for a range of mental health issues and I know they're in good hands there.

However, I am struggling myself with the idea of their scars being a visible reminder to them (and everybody else) for the rest of their life. Just the thought of it can make me feel physically sick. There's so much guilt and regret and wishing we could turn back the time, and sorrow for them. Guilt that I couldn't protect them from it, sorrow for what they must have been feeling and agonising over, that they couldn't talk with me and rather cut themselves.

I have asked several counsellors about how to deal with it as a parent, read countless forums and websites, but all of the practical advise I could find is how to support your self-harming child. There was nothing I could find in how to support myself, other than the usual stuff on self care.

I am really at a loss here, sometimes can't sleep because the thoughts about their physical scars make my heart race. Nevermind the psychological scars... Then I'm thinking at least they are alive. But it doesn't help.

How am I as a parent supposed to deal with my inner turmoil and find some peace?


Dear @Gretchen,

It can be really heartbreaking for parents when a child is dealing with a significant mental health concern. Now that the immediate safety concern has been addressed for your child and she is receiving good care, it makes sense that you would want to process the impact of what has happened for you. It also sounds like a significant proportion of what you are experiencing is anxiety for the future - not that she will self-harm again, but of the impacts of previous self-harm. This is very understandable given what you have been through.

You mention asking counsellors about how to cope, and I wonder whether these were brief conversations or if they were counselling sessions where there was time and space to explore the issue (and therefore provide more personalised support)?

Some of what you are describing - the regret and sorrow - are common emotions that can occur when someone is grieving a loss. Often when we talk about grief we focus on bereavement and the grief that follows death, but grief can also arise in response to a loss of health, or an experience of suffering, or anything which involves some form of loss. Although your daughter is now in good hands, it does not remove the suffering that she, and you, have been through, and grief for this experience strikes me as a possible factor in what you are feeling now.

There is no one right way to process grief. Some people find it helpful to have counselling, as this creates space to talk about what has happened and how they are feeling, as well as identify next steps. Others find that they prefer to move through grief without formal professional support.

People deal with grief in a variety of ways, and grieving takes time. Many people find it helpful to have some way to express their grief and connect with what they have lost - sometimes this can be through writing, or art, or another meaningful activity.

Beyond the sadness, and regret, you also talk about lying awake thinking about the scars. It sounds like the possible impact of these scars on your child’s future life and happiness really worries you.

There are many people who have scars (both physical and psychological) and lead full, rich lives in which their scars are not a focus for them or others. I wonder if at the moment, when your mind is on the scars and your heart is racing, your thoughts are filled with ‘what ifs’ and the impact of the scars is ‘larger than life’.

These types of thoughts and feelings are common in the aftermath of stressful events, and can make it hard to keep perspective, and hard to notice positives in your life right now.

You might find it helpful to try some strategies to manage anxiety and stress. Although they aren’t specific to your situation, these types of skills can be relevant across a wide range of situations, because they are based on patterns in how people’s thoughts and emotions react to stress. If you’re finding they aren’t working for you, talking to a health professional can be helpful to help create a more personalised set of strategies.

I also encourage you to be gentle with yourself - you’ve been through a lot, and recovery and healing take time.

Best wishes,

Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.


Re: Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

Hi there,

Your message resonated with me as I too am struggling to cope with a teenager who is (again) self harming regularly. It breaks my heart, it scares me and it traumatises and exhausts me. Whilst you can put supports in place for your children, it is hard to find the right type of support as a parent. Most days I feel like I am in crisis myself and I just wanted to reach out to you so you know you are not alone. It upsets me that what I have had to "normalise" for my daughter seems so far from 'normal' parenting.  It is really really tough, but know you are not alone. 



Re: Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

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Hi @Jacqui thanks for responding with such a compassionate reminder that it's okay to find being a parent of a teenager who self-harms so tough, and that you're not alone on this journey to look after your daughter. It makes sense that you are feeling heartbroken, scared, traumatised and exhausted.

It sounds like you have already put in supports for your daughter which is really great to hear. I was wondering if you had any supports for yourself during this time, whether that be family, friends, or a mental health professional? Do you have any activities you can do to ground yourself during these difficult moments? As you said, it can be really hard to find the right support as a parent. Another option could be looking into Carer Gateway, which is a support service for carers of individuals including those with mental illness. 

We've just sent you an email to check in privately, so keep an eye out for that.


Re: Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

I'm so glad you posted, I can really relate to your experience. My teen also self-harms and I was physically nauseous when I first saw the scars and overwhelmed by the shock, confused as to why S didn't come to me for support, and just really horrified at the thought of cutting and the permanent scaring. I don't get as strong of a reaction now, especially understanding the psychology behind it and how horribly common it is. It's really good to know someone else feels so uncomfortable about it, and to be able to share that here because I am very very careful to only ever show a supportive face and gratitude when S tells me, so they'll keep communication open and not feel ashamed. The sooner S comes to me the better. We're looking at a hospital program so things are pretty full on at the moment which is why I found this forum.

Re: Ask a Professional: Coping with self harm as a parent

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Hey @Hope42,

Welcome to the ReachOut forums and thank you for sharing your experience! I can see that you really resonate with this post based on your experience with your young person self-harming. I want to emphasise that feeling shocked and overwhelmed by the scars is an incredibly normal reaction for any parent. To see the harm your teen has inflicted on themselves can be confronting to say the least and may also be uncomfortable to think about or look at - as you mentioned.

I am really glad that you've had the opportunity to understand the psychology behind why individuals self-harm and realising that you most definitely aren't alone! I can see that this has enabled you to have a different approach and reaction towards your teen, which can help them feel comfortable to reach out for support when they need it. I also want to acknowledge how admirable you are for the endless amount of effort you are putting in to support your teen. It shows just how resilient you are! 

I can see how difficult it would be to manage your own wellbeing with what's been going on. It is important to maintain your wellbeing while caring for your teen, so I am wondering how you have been coping through all of this? ReachOut offers free and confidential 1:1 Parent Coaching which can be really helpful for parents to debrief and receive support. 

An email has also been sent to you so keep an eye out for it!