Self-harm: From a parent’s perspective

I saw this quote recently and it really struck a cord with me:

A Mother’s love and pain runs deep

“To witness your child in the grips of mental turmoil takes a mother’s heart and totally rips it from your chest

The feeling of helplessness is beyond emotionally crippling

As a parent it’s an innate inbuilt part of Mother Nature’s ability to protect and love

Mental illness tests that confidence to the limit

How CAN you protect against a force so strong?

A force that holds no bars

An entity that is beyond confrontation or challenge

How the hell can we win this battle despite the true grit and determination to overcome what may!” (Author unknown)

All of the above is, heartbreakingly, so relatable. Mental illness really does suck..big time and one for us that has resulted in self-injurious behaviours and even overdose attempts at the tender age of 11!

Self-harm: The early days

From a very early age and pre diagnosis, my daughter would often scratch herself or pull her own hair when frustrated or angry. She was also a skin picker and would create lesions on her face from nothing and then continually pick at these creating larger lesions which would often last for months at a time.

At the time, I didn’t see this as self-injurious behaviour and to be honest I didn’t really think much of it at the time, however, skin picking can be an act of self-injury but it can also be as an indication of sensory needs.

As my daughter grew, more self-injurious behaviours emerged and would include biting herself, hard, and ripping handfuls of her hair out, both of which were naturally concerning. Again, these behaviours would be triggered by frustration or anger.

Escalation of self-harm to include cutting

Fast forward approximately 6/7 years, at this point aged 11, we were now at a point where my daughter was harming herself by ‘cutting’. How had this happened?

We had not experienced any ‘cutting’ up until last summer, however, it was during a meltdown that the one and only picture frame I had in the whole house, got smashed which left shattered glass all over the floor. I thought I had picked up all the glass, however I had missed a shard. Unfortunately my daughter hadn’t and this was the first time she cut herself, she cut her arm, only a handful of times, but enough to draw blood. I hoped and prayed that this was a one off and didn’t become a ‘go to’ for her.

What truly broke my heart was that, when asked, my daughter told me that the reason for doing this was ‘to prove how difficult her life is’. How on earth do you, as mum, respond to that?!

As a parent, it’s our role to keep our children safe, both emotionally and physically, and this was just unbearable to see and hear.   

After this day, there were a few of occasions where my daughter would say to me that her arm was sore and this transpired to be because she had been using a drawing pin from her bedroom to scratch/cut herself. Whilst this was a little bit worrying, these were fairly superficial and I wrongly thought it was just a phase that would be short lived.

Unfortunately, this was not to be.

The scary reality of learning from others

Shortly after the summer holidays (2019), I was horrified to learn that my daughter, whilst she had been on a school swimming trip, she had been able to give out her social media (no, she wasn’t ‘old enough’ to be on social media, however that’s a blog for another time) contact details to an unknown 13 year old lad, who also happened to be swimming with his specialist school.

I was further horrified as it wasn’t long before I overheard conversations between my daughter and this boy, discussing self-harm and him advising her to ‘break open a pencil sharpener and use the blade instead’! I naturally raised this as a safeguarding issue with school as her risk of self-harm had now just increased!

It was only a matter of a few days that my daughter took up his ‘advice’!

Things were also escalating in school too and my daughter was finding anything that she possible could to harm herself. She would break pens and use the broken plastic and pull staples out of display boards.   

Where we are at now

I started writing this blog prior to lock down, yes this one was put on pause for some time, and at that point self-harming had reached, what I had thought at that point, an all-time high! Resulting in multiple cuts to both her arm and her legs, happening several times a week and also included etching ‘help’ into her forearm with a pencil sharpener blade.

Why didn’t I remove these blades I hear you ask? I will come onto this in a bit…

The impact on my daughter

If you can imagine for just a moment, how incredibly isolating and lonely self-harming must be? Can you imagine feeling so low, frustrated or angry that you want to take a blade to your skin and cut yourself until there is enough blood running from a multitude of cuts to sufficiently meet the need you are craving? Knowing there are people that love you, so incredibly much, in the house but who are unable to reach you and end your suffering?  

I’ve found that one of the, very many, challenges of self-harm is the more you do it, the more time you spend alone, the more it feeds into the isolation further. It’s a vicious cycle!

My daughter firmly, and heartbreakingly, felt that ‘no one can help’ and often felt that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Conflicting need of response to self-harming

In the early days, before cutting, where she would bite herself or pull her hair out, she would scream at me ‘why didn’t you stop me?!’. But on other occasions I get screamed at to ‘leave me alone!’. As a parent this leaves you in a quandary, not knowing what to do for the best! Do you intervene or leave your child alone? This is such a difficult decision and one that can only be made by yourself whilst assessing each individual situation.

Impact on the rest of the family

I am not underestimating my daughter’s distress and turmoil by any stretch of the imagination, however, when you have a child who is harming themselves, it affects the whole family. However, in my daughter’s mind ‘it’s my body’, ‘it’s not affecting anyone else’ etc but the impact on everyone is very distressing!

Not knowing what to do for the best or how to help your child, or your sister in our case, is just totally heart breaking!

As time went on, if I tried to intervene I would be screamed and swore at with threats to ‘cut deeper’ if I didn’t leave her alone. Can you imagine what that is like? You are torn between trying to keep you child safe and trying to prevent triggering further harm.

My fears

Whilst I still had hope that this was a phase (albeit a prolonged phase) and was demonstrative of her current struggles, I was extremely fearful that it would get to the point where I would be unable to continue to keep her safe and the risks would become unmanageable. What would happen if I was unable to keep her safe?

We had an incident recently, where not only was she covered in dozens and dozens of cuts, from her ankles to her knees and some, but she was also adamant that she was going to kill herself. This felt different to other occasions where she had verbalised how she wanted to end her life. This time, it felt very much of a case of WHEN not IF!

On a practical level

Prior to the escalation of the use of pencil sharpener blades, and unbeknown to me at the time razor blades, I deliberated for quite some time about what the best course of action was. I was naturally concerned that my daughter was harming herself with a drawing pins but on the other hand what would she use instead if I removed these?

Professional guidance

There are mixed messages out there, not only online but from professionals too. The advice conflicts from ‘keeping your child as safe as possible’ but in the sense of ensuring any ‘tools’ are sterilised, to ‘removing anything that your child can harm themselves with’. The latter, is pretty much impossible to do as ANYTHING can be used as a ‘tool’! Even colouring pens or CD cases could be snapped and the broken plastic used…everyday items you wouldn’t even think about until you have a child that harms themselves!

Frisking her room

However, despite the above, the earlier advice from the Maudsley (Specialist hospital) was ‘to remove any items that my daughter could use to harm herself,’ however when I went into her room it got me thinking further about all the potential dangers and that was just what was in her bedroom!

As I looked around, one of her plastic storage drawers was broken, I felt it with my fingertip and realised just how incredibly sharp the broken plastic was! I also found myself considering taking the bulbs out of her lamp and ceiling light as was thinking how easy it would be to remove the bulb, break this and use the shards of glass! This seemed like an impossible task and I also couldn’t leave my daughter without light, could I?!

However, what I did remove were several drawing pins, a broken pencil and the pieces of broken plastic from her drawer which I found.

I had already previously reiterated, to my daughter, the advice from the hospital the night before which she appeared to accept, however what I wasn’t prepared for was my daughter’s reaction to me actually having done this, when I picked her up from school! It sent her into complete meltdown which lasted approximately 45mins, causing damage to the house, threats of violence towards me and left my daughter in complete distress! I was having second thoughts that I had done the right thing and I’m not going to lie, I caved! I gave back the drawing pins as thought these were less harmful than the pencil sharpener blade I had been unable to locate, thinking she may revert back to using these and give up on the blade, however sadly I was wrong!

Keeping safe versus validating her feelings

Speaking to others who had previously self-harmed, there was another important point to consider whilst trying to figure out how best to manage this situation and this was ‘by removing items that would keep her safe, was this invalidating her feelings?’. Argh, I really didn’t know what to do for the best!

‘Recovery’ – Her Way

Over the past few months my daughter and I have had many a conversation about whether to remove ‘temptation’, as cutting had quickly become her ‘go to’, sometimes because she was ‘angry’, sometimes when mood was ‘low’ and sometimes ‘just because’!  However, my daughter had taken it upon herself, aged just 12, to do this alone. She felt that it needed to be HER that takes control and HER that needs to resist temptation. This is a massive responsibility for a child!

Sadly, this approach resulted in further escalation. Having, independently, previously thrown away her pencil sharpener blades, when the urge reoccurred this became overwhelming and led her to seek out and use razor blades! Something that heartbreakingly has been her ‘go to’ for several months.

Things I’ve tried along the way to support my daughter – the Pro’s and Con’s

I’ve tried to take the damage limitation approach, thinking if I didn’t remove the drawing pins, for example, this would mean that the risk of escalation, to other ‘tools’, would be lessened. However, despite my best efforts, heartbreakingly, this still escalated to using a blade on the advice of a peer and the influence of others is a very difficult one to overcome.

I sought help and advice from our current mental health specialists however my daughter HATES the knowledge of me ‘sharing our private lives’! In addition, the advice was to remove anything harmful and this was not only impossible but also triggering for my daughter. Any ‘alternative’ suggestions, ie ping an elastic band on your wrist or draw on your skin with a pen where you would otherwise cut, were just poo-poo’d by my daughter as ‘absolutely ridiculous!´ ideas!

The support information I found online appeared to have conflicting advice and left me feeling even more confused than I was to start with.

There were occasions where I could indirectly distract my daughter, however this was only effective if in the right frame of mind. If her mind set was such that she was going to self-harm, then there was nothing I could do to prevent this. I even admit to threating to call the Crisis Team or calling an ambulance, both in a ditched attempt to prevent her harming herself, to no avail.

This has been one hell of a rollercoaster ride and not a journey I would wish on anyone, however what I have learnt from this awful situation is, LISTEN to your child, TALK to your child, REASSURE your child that you hear what they are saying to you, VALIDATE their feelings and DON’T JUDGE. Their feelings are real and whatever the reason that your child is self-injuring, your child NEEDS to know that you are there for them! Don’t be fobbed off with text book advice, feedback to the professionals what isn’t helpful and don’t be afraid to say what isn’t improving the situation.

Where we are today

I am pleased to say, as of today, that my daughter is 14 days ‘clean’! This is the longest period of time that has been achieved since this nightmare began, and whilst I’m hesitate to become complacent, I have got to celebrate what a massive achievement this is! I am so incredibly proud of her and tentatively hopeful for the future!

Where to seek support

If you are concerned about your child, first and foremost please do seek advice from the professionals involved in your child’s care.

For online support and advice, here are two websites I personally consider to be informative and helpful:

Youngminds

https://youngminds.org.uk/ucommerce/self-harm/c-23/p-177/

Self Harm UK:

https://www.selfharm.co.uk/

2 Comments

  1. Miriam Catstrey
    July 2, 2020 / 12:45 pm

    Thank you for this post.I fear it will be something in our future as my daughter already exhibits self injurious behaviours like skin picking.
    How incredibly brave and resilient of your daughter though to decide to take control and attempt to overcome it as the only viable solution for a pda’er.

    • July 2, 2020 / 1:17 pm

      Thank you for your comment and I’m sorry to hear your daughter is showing self injurious behaviours. Thank you also for your kind words and yes, oh my goodness I have been so consumed with it all that I hadn’t even realised why she felt the need to overcome this herself but you are so right, very typical for a PDA’er! x

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