Jo Fitzsimmons (Alumina Programme Manager) tells her painful and difficult story of how she supported her child druing self-harm 

Even now when my mobile rings, I panic. Badly.

There was a time when school, the school nurse, other teenagers’ parents, school friends of my daughter, family friends…pretty much everyone, would ring to tell me that my child had a new scar, or posted a picture of their wrist cut, or had told someone they felt like harming themselves.

Even today, 4 years on, I hate my phone ringing. I fear what someone might tell me next.

As a mum of a self-harmer I can tell you this; my child comes from a home of two educated, fun loving parents who laugh a lot and have been able to give both our children a fantastic start in life; surrounded by a close family and many friends.

What I can’t tell you is why my child, then aged 11, started to self-harm. 

I can’t tell you about the first time it happened, why I didn’t notice, what my child used.

I can tell you about some of the struggles we all faced, and mistakes we made.

E was a happy child at Junior school, then struggled to transition well in secondary school. They’d done well academically, were on the gifted and talented programme for English and in general, was a compliant, happy child. Or so we thought, until one day, a parent rang to tell me they spotted blood through my child’s school shirt in passing on the way to school.

My husband and I chatted it through and decided to gently open up the conversation, which was painful for us all. What transpired that evening hit me like a brick. It became apparent my child was covered (and I mean covered – upper arms, tummy, legs) in scars and words they had etched into themselves about how they felt about themselves.

E was silent; fearful; clearly in real turmoil that we had ‘found out’. We were silent, fearful and in turmoil that we had this knowledge. We felt sickeningly like failures – what had we done, what hadn’t we done, why would our child to do this to their beautiful body, did it mean suicidal intentions, were they being bullied, and oh – the biggest one – why didn’t we know until now….the endless night of whispered fears between my husband and I as we waited for morning to take our child to the GP.

That trip to our brilliant, gentle and kind GP led to a chaotic, frenzied 48 hours of cutting; now we all knew about it; there was no need to hide it and there no longer seemed to be any control of the self-harming. It felt like, for all of us, it had now taken over our lives.

I know now this is pretty much the story of many parents we have spoken to since – once it’s out there, it escalates quickly. We tried to trust E in their room but to no avail. E moved into our bedroom so at least we knew they were safe at night. In hindsight, would I have done this again, no, probably not. Did it give me some feeling of control? Yes. Did it give E any sense of control? No.

After discussions with school about safety and CAMHS about self-harm risks, E was allowed back to school. Oh boy, what a mistake! Everyone now knew. Comments were made. Teachers didn’t have a clue and were clearly frightened. I spent the day answering my phone to random people I didn’t know who wanted to tell me my child had self-harmed, did I know?? YES!! I knew. I knew what it was like to feel sick every moment of every day. To never sleep for fear or what I would find in the morning. I knew I was trying to protect my other child from ever finding out. To remove as many sharp objects without removing everything for wanting to show trust…

YES! I knew! I wanted to scream - do you know?? Do you know what we are going through?? Or do you just want to gossip about the mess we are in???

Self-harm is isolating. For the young person – who self-harms because verbalising their fears and struggles is too hard, picking up an object to cut or taking medication so they sleep all day and all night is easier in comparison to attempt to talk a language of emotion (which might as well be Russian to them). Friends keep away, what 12 year old knows what to say? Who wants to be associated with the ‘weird kid’?

Self-harm isolates the family. Life doesn’t continue as normal. Fear, vulnerability, distrust, anxiety come into your home. Friends stay away – why would they want to see your child and then have to explain about self-harm to theirs?

Your friends disappear and mental health specialists take their place.

Your world gets smaller. As your child becomes more introverted, so do you by default. 

Over a long, painful, dark time we sat it out. Rarely self-harm becomes suicide. For E, the cuts got deeper, we could no longer keep them safe. It was decided they needed more help than we could give and after a few short hospital stays, long term hospital admittance was the only way forward.

There is only a small percentage of self-harming young people who need this level of care. What became apparent was that there were complex issues going on, self-harm was , in fact, a very small – and the only visible sign – of the deeper issues. 

We are now 4 years on.

I keep a razor in the bathroom now (for the delights of leg shaving!)

I have a lovely set of kitchen knives I keep in the kitchen.

I don’t hide the medication in the washing machine any longer (yes, I did once forget and I had to explain to the GP that I needed a new prescription and why!)

What changed?

E changed. Utterly. Completely in every way.

Through working with a committed, supportive mental health team E was able to begin to draw happy/sad faces which they left around the house for us; E wore coloured wrist bands (red for a bad day, amber for a wobbly day, green for a good day) so we knew their moods without them having to say; E started to send long texts to us when life was hard and there was something they wanted heard by us; E even started to argue (I know, but, it was fantastic to hear our child who hated articulating anything remotely disagreeable, say no!); E slowly came back, as a different child. 

A child who has words.

A child who can get cross – and not be scared of it.

A child who has a lot of opinions – most of which we are hugely proud of – some, perhaps a little less so! 

A child who has a body full of scars, but a spirit full of life, fight and hope.

I would never, ever want a parent to go through the pain but I know if you are reading this, then you probably are.

You are not alone, you are not isolated, you have friends at SelfharmUK who ‘get it’, who aren’t shocked and who will walk with you through this.

If you found Jo's story helpful, you might like to read the second part to her story here.

For further help and support, please see our parents guide to self-harm and parents guide to eating disorders.

Comments (17)

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  • Thank you for this, your words about the families being isolated ring so true. I'm a private person and the visual clues of my child's struggles tell the world my secrets. You have given me hope for our future.

  • I know how hard it can be - if it helps to email chat then please do - jo.fitzsimmons@youthscape.co.uk , we also run parents online support sessions which you might find helpful? x

  • Thank you for sharing your experience as a parent. It is incredibly difficult to verbalize out loud to someone how much emotional pain and trauma a family suffers and how much anxiety, grief and guilt is felt by not being able to protect the one you love from self harming.

    • jo

      It is incredibly difficult isn't it, not easy for any family members. It affects everyone so much, which has a knock effect on being able to care. I run online parents support session if you might be interested.

  • Hi Hi,
    Thank you for your response and offer of online support. I am at a loss whether I should be here but I was searching for some respite from the emotional pain that I am experiencing as my daughter's struggle through her adolescence is being revealed by her now that she is currently experiencing a mental health crisis. It is mental torture as a parent to lie awake at night worrying about the possibility of self harm occurring.

  • jo

    it truly is - i think i have just emailed you about support directly - if not then, sorry! email me about our parents sessions at jo.fitzsimmons@youthscape.co.uk .
    hope to hear from you soon x

  • Another scared parent. Discovered in September that our 14, now 15 year old, has an eating disorder (and is being seen by CAMH). Discovered 2 days ago she's been cutting herself. I just feel like my safety line's been cut. I know it's really common with people with EDs but that really doesn't help when you become another statistic yourself.

    • jo

      the stats just don't matter when it's your child, do they? as you say, yes they do go together often, but for you as a parent, it is heartbreaking and awful to try and work out a way forward for you all. let camhs know - it will help access further support hopefully; talk to someone about how you feel about it - we need to keep our feelings separate from that of our children otherwise it becomes a real mess of emotions and guilt on all sides; talk to your child about it - gently, calm, without judgement and, as best possible, without emotion on your side; get them a first aid kit and tell them to come to you if they need urgent help.
      our next set our parents sessions starts again later this month - drop me a line jo.fitzsimmons@youthscape.co.uk for info. x

  • Thank you for this article, it captures all the feelings we are going through. Our youngest has a medical condition which has been hard and self harm has escalated, food has been her control and yesterday finally our GP listened to our worries and saw how poorly our youngest is. Scared of next steps and how to support.

    • it can be so scary and feel out of control - but now your GP understands, things might swing into action quickly. it requires a huge amount from you so look after yourself. Your child will need a lot of support to manage this - physically and emotionally - keep the lines of communication open in the way that best suits them, get friends and family to help if you your child likes them (!), keep on at the referral process as it is long and arduous, you need to keep on the so ring every week if you have to get your appointments. if you want to chat more email me jo.fitzsimmons@youthscape.co.uk and we can chat through the next steps and what they might be for your child.

  • I too have lived this life with my daughter, now aged 21, but started self harming at 13. I'm crying with you at the pain we are enduring. Our story follows a similar pattern, minimal scratches to start with and culminating in such deep, large slashes with a razor blade requiring stiches/staples, that we could no longer keep her safe so had to have her admitted to hospital under a section. Our daughter is now in a specialist placement 200 miles away from us, but getting the treatment she deserves.
    Never give up hope xx

    • my heart goes out to you: to every parent going through this. having your child so far away from you is horrendous isn't it? but as you say, they are getting the care they need. i felt guilty too as in some ways it was a relief as i knew i couldn't keep her safe anyway, and knew she was in the best place, but it still hurt deeply. please look after yourself too. x

  • Honestly? I could have written every word of this myself, my daughter's name even begins with E! She too was a healthy, bright, intelligent, very much loved child who didn't transition well into secondary and slowly became more withdrawn by the day. She also couldn't articulate any emotions. Thankfully we can now say the same as you - what a transformation we have seen in the last 6 months. Take heart anyone else who is experiencing the trauma of watching a child seemingly destroy themselves, they do get better.

  • Thank you for this honest and moving description of your story. My son is 22, a grown up, which makes me feel so helpless. Yesterday he cut his face all over with a razor and I'm struggling so hard to cope. He has previously cut his legs badly. I just want him to be the happy boy I remember as a child, and want to help him but know he will have to go to help for himself as all I can do is tell him I love him and am so proud of him and that there is help out there if he chooses to find it. It is so strengthening to find that there are so many other people going through this and that neither him nor me are alone. I have huge hopes that Joe will get better and that he will find happiness and fulfilment in life. All the families on here know much it hurts to have someone you love so much go through this. Thank goodness mental health issues, particularly for young men, are now being taken so seriously. So good to read others' stories and gain strength from them.

  • i am so sad to hear of your struggles with Joe; it is heartbreaking to see our children suffer so much isn't it? as a parent, we feel we should be able to make things right and to protect them, yet we can't always :(
    i hope you and Joe get suitable support from a mental health team? keep in touch - if you ever want to email, please do; we run parents support sessions if you feel that might help you? x

  • How emotional I was after reading your story, mostly because of how it echoed our own situation. 6 years ago we found out that our middle daughter then 12 was self harming, to say I was devastated is an understatement although if I am honest I wasn't really surprised. B was a young girl who really struggled with new situations and making friends and moving to secondary school completely rocked her world. I asked for help from the school but wasn't taken seriously, in fact one teacher I spoke to said 'well its fashionable these days' and the CAMHS appointment wasn't much better. For 3 years we coped alone, me sleeping on her floor because I was so scared about what she might do in the night, removing tablets from her bag and searching her room for blades at least once a week. When she reached 15 it became unbearable, she went to school on sports day in the smallest shorts she could find with cuts all over her legs. The school called in a panic to break the news to me that my daughter had been self harming! I remember just laughing hysterically, now they wanted to know! Today is her 18th birthday and she is a completely different girl, strong and independent and most importantly happy, we made it!
    Unfortunately last week my youngest daughter wrote me a message telling me that she wished she wasn't here and that she had been burning herself. I am trying to find the strength to go through this again whilst also destroying myself with the questions running around my head ' how did we get this so wrong that two of our daughters feel this way'. I am trying to stay grounded with the thought that we can do this but being a parent is so very hard.

  • hi, it is so sad to know our story echoes so many other people's. the struggles we find as parents are beyond our understanding nor what we expect when we become parents.
    my heart goes out to you that your youngest child is struggling - it is not your fault, you are not to blame - your child isn't well: if she had chicken pox , you wouldn't blame yourself - please don't when it comes to their mental health.
    feel free to join our parents sessions online. take care of yourself through this. x