Jo helps us again to think about life with a self-harming child, unlike her first piece Jo outlines clearly the freedom that there can be for parents after self-harm, this is a powerful, inspirational article and is well worth a read.
When our 11-year-old started to self-harm we began a round of appointments with mental health professionals – many of which, I felt, were ineffective, frustrating and not reaching my child at all….
I felt angry: with the professionals – they didn’t seem to ‘do’ anything, they just talked a lot.
: with my child – why the heck did she sit in silence, not speaking most the time?
: with myself – why, oh why, hadn’t I seen it coming?
The process with CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) was cyclic; each Thursday (appointment day) would come around; I felt optimistic that this week my child would engage and a sudden epiphany would reveal to us all as to what was going on, why the cutting was getting worse, then my wonderful 11-year-old (O) would stop. We’d go home and live would just pick up from where we all were.
When that didn’t happen, each week, I became more despondent but, because I didn’t want my child, husband, and our youngest son knowing, I became outwardly more confident about the positive effect these appointments were having. Basically – I was split into two. The inner mum was devastated, angry, scarred, panicky. The outward Mum was calm, engaging with professionals, open with our self-harming child, positive and maintaining ‘normality’.
For the best part of two years we all carried on, all of us hoping it would end well, that the self-harming would stop. And, it did.
Why? How? The questions I am asked by every parent of a child who self-harmed. We all want to know the ‘magic words’, the ‘thing’ that will work for our child.
I have no wand, no ‘magic hat’ or incredible power.
It was hard work. By my child. By us. By the mental health professionals.
See, what I hadn’t considered was the accumulative effect of each of us enter twinned in order to help my child live healthy. We were all working together – and that’s what did it.
O worked hardest of all. On the bad days, she stayed downstairs and asked us to sit up through the night on many occasions as she didn’t want to be tempted to harm. O watched endless box sets on TV (at the time it drove us nuts!) but she distracted herself constantly. Art became the way she communicated – strong, dark, disturbing pictures were drawn of the stuff that she couldn’t find words for. O made friends online as old friends had slipped away. O took control – became vegetarian, took evening walks, began cooking, sorted out her wardrobe……pretty much reorganised her life to take back control.
As a mum, I was in two minds about this period of time. Hugely pleased that control was being taken by O, but unsure of what control, we as parents, should have over our now 14-year-old.
We made decisions as parents of a young person with poor mental health that I doubt a parent who hadn’t our struggles would have made. In order to combat my need to know every movement of O every moment of every day, we took the very open and liberal view that we would lay boundaries but not ‘control’ as O needed that. As O began to recover she would go to gigs, have a few beers and stop at friends’ houses. I wanted to rejoice my child was doing ‘normal’ teenage things but I was petrified.
What we had been through in those 3 years weren’t normal but, yet, we needed to encourage ‘normal’ in order to move on.
The mental health professionals worked hard – not outwardly I learnt but in in their absolute consistency of care. They figured out small things O liked and would agree to spent half the session letting O talk about the TV box sets or gigs and then the second half they would expect to engage with the therapeutic process.
Between us all – it worked. We had ‘bumps’ along the way, setbacks, and long nights. But we did it all together.
Our parenting has shifted so much through this experience. I can now admit that I was probably pretty strict (a product of the parenting I received), I knew my kids were bright so (silently) expected them to achieve academically, we were a very hospitable family so I expected them to be extrovert and welcoming as I was.
Now I still get scarred when I see O with a craft knife, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach and adrenaline pumping if I see a bloodied tissue in the bin, I still (very occasionally) beat myself up wondering what could have been different but, the positive outweigh those fears now.
As a family we have journeyed to a better place – all emotions are encouraged to be expressed, we are boundaried with our rules but ready to negotiate, we ask our kids to set their sanctions for any misdemeanours, we are very open about our own emotions as parents and people, we do a lot of family stuff together as we are very close having been through all this.
The biggest compliment came recently from O when chatting with her and her friend. The teenagers were discussing things they wouldn’t tell their parents but O said “my parents know literally everything about me – all the worst stuff, all the stuff in my head, there’s nothing I wouldn’t tell them’.
A parents guide to self-harm can be purchased here https://www.youthscape.co.uk/store/product/a-parents-guide-to-self-harm