Survival, Signaling, and Security: Foster Carers’ and Residential Carers’ Accounts of Self-Harming Practices Among Children and Young People in Care

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Research on clinicians’ interpretations of self-harming practices has shown that they can often be negative. To date there has been limited consideration of other professionals’ narratives, notably those working in social care. This article presents focus group and interview data generated with foster carers (n = 15) and residential carers (n = 15) to explore the symbolic meanings ascribed to self-harm among the children and young people they care for. Three repertoires of interpretation are presented: survival, which conceives self-harm as a mechanism for redefining the identity of “looked-after”; signaling, which understands self-harm as a communicative tool for the expression of emotion; and security, which sees self-harming practices as testing the authenticity and safety of the caring relationship. Through their focus on sociocultural narratives, carers position themselves as experts on self-harm due to their intimacy with young people’s social worlds. This construction potentially creates distance from health professionals, which is problematic given the current privileging of interprofessional working.

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