Self-harm: Parents' experiences



Professor Keith Hawton and Dr Anne Stewart explain what self-harm is and how this section of our website can be useful

Professor Keith Hawton and Dr Anne Stewart explain what self-harm is and how this section of our website can be useful

Professor Keith Hawton

My name’s Keith Hawton. I’ve been doing research on self-harm for many years and I’d like to tell you a little bit about what self-harm is, how common it is, why it occurs and what the outlook is in someone who is self-harming.

Self-harm is intentional self-injury, such as self-cutting, or self-poisoning such as taking an overdose. It’s extremely common in young people, for example, 10-15 percent of young people report that they self-harm. It’s much more common in girls than boys, maybe three times as common, and it’s often repeated. Some young people indeed harm themselves many many times.

So why do people do it? Well they often do it to deal with bad feelings, feelings of depression, anger, dislike of themselves. It may be done to show other people how bad the person is feeling. It may be done in some cases to get a sense of control over the person’s life. It may be done for reducing tension. And of course sometimes it’s a suicidal act, in other words, the person actually wanted to die.

So what are the reasons that people feel like this? Well this is often due to relationship problems, problems with family, problems with friends, bullying. It may be done because of problems at school, problems with work. It may be because of emotional problems, such as depression, anxiety, and in girls particularly, eating disorders.

Certain people are more vulnerable to self-harming because other people in the family have self-harmed. It may also be more likely where a person is aware of other people who are self-harming, such as friends, or through television, films, or what they’ve seen on the internet. And of course, having the means available for self-harm makes it much more likely.

So what about the outlook for someone who’s self-harming? Well, we know that most young people will stop self-harming perhaps in a few weeks, a few months, sometimes a few years. In a minority it will become part of a longer term pattern of behaviour, and for some it may indicate longer term emotional problems, but for the vast majority, self-harm will stop.

Dr Anne Stewart

Hello, my name’s Anne Stewart, and I work with young people who self-harm. I’m also involved in research. So Professor Hawton has been discussing some of the facts about self-harm in young people, and has underlined just how common it is. But what’s it like to discover, as a parent or carer, that your young person is self-harming?

Most parent feel completely bewildered by this. They cannot understand how a young person could do this to themselves, and they may indeed feel quite angry with the young person. They certainly will feel very fearful about the consequences of self-harm, whether it will do any permanent damage. It can also rock their confidence as parents. They wonder why is this happening to their family. They can feel quite guilty or ashamed, and this may make it quite difficult to share the experience with friends or with other family members. So they can end up feeling pretty alone and isolated. But all these reactions are pretty normal and because self-harm is so common many families are going through this experience.

So we’ve interviewed over 40 parents and carers who’ve experienced self-harm in the family and they share their stories about what it’s really been like, what their reactions have been to it, how they’ve been able to help and support the young person through it, what treatments are available, and what it’s been like going through these treatments. What’s really helped their young person, what’s helped them, and how they’ve all coped as a family.

A strong theme running through all these interviews is just how crucial it is for families to be there alongside the young person, helping and supporting them through it. So in this website you can hear the stories of these people as they share the experiences of self-harm, and there are also useful links to other websites and resources about self-harm.

So we hope you find this website helpful and interesting, whether you’re a person that self-harms themself, or whether you have experience of a young person in your family self-harming. Whether you’re trying to help someone else go through this experience, or indeed whether you are a professional who’s working with families, who really wants to know what it’s like for families when they have to go through this experience.


Self-harm: parents' experiences -a preview

Self-harm: parents' experiences -a preview

In this section you can find out about the experiences of parents and other family members of young people who self-harm by seeing and hearing them share their personal stories on film. Researchers travelled all around the UK to talk to 39 people in their own homes. Find out what people said about issues such as why young people self-harm, discovering that a young person is self-harming, how they helped their young person, living with self-harm, support and treatment, and what helped them cope.  We hope you find the information helpful and reassuring.


This section is based on research by The University of Oxford.

Research Copyright 2019 University of Oxford All rights reserved

The National Institute for Health Research.
This project presents independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) under its Programme Grants for Applied Research programme (Reference Number RP-PG-0610-10026). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.

Publication date: July 2014
​Last updated December 2017
Review date: December 2019


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