Children as young as seven are engaging in self-harming behaviour according to a recent US study published in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers interviewed 665 children in third, sixth and ninth grades, spanning ages seven to 16, about non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), defined as deliberately hurting oneself without intending to die.
They found that one in 12 of the children had engaged in NSSI at least once. Of those who reported deliberate self-harming:
8 percent were third graders
4 percent were sixth graders
13 percent were ninth graders.
"A lot of people tend to think that school-aged children, they're happy, they don't have a lot to worry about," says Dr. Benjamin Hankin, a co-author of the study. "Clearly a lot more kids are doing this than people have known."
While previous studies have focused on self-harm among teens and young adults, this is the first study to report on children aged under 11. As a result, it identifies a number of age- and gender-related patterns that were previously hidden.
- Across all ages, girls are more likely to self-harm than boys.
- Boys are more likely to hit themselves, while girls are more likely to engage in cutting.
- Self-harm is almost four times more common in teenage girls than teenage boys (19 percent of girls versus 5 percent of boys in this age group).
- Hitting is more common in younger children, while teens are more likely to cut themselves.
Why children self-harm
Those who self-harm often view it as an outlet to release negative emotions. They may have low self-esteem, feel depressed or anxious, feel ashamed or guilty about something in their lives, experience loneliness or lack of control, or even feel numb.
"You can have young kids who are experiencing a lot of emotions – things that they don't know how to deal with – so they start banging their head against the wall," explains Dr. Hankin.
According to Hankin and his team, those who engage in self-harm can be at greater risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviours. So it is important to tackle self-harm and its possible causes as soon as possible.
What parents can do if they discover a child is self-harming
It can be very distressing to discover that your child is self-harming, but you can address it in a number of ways while supporting your child.
Stay calm and avoid judging your child, even if you are upset.
Understand that your child is not self-harming to get attention but rather to manage her emotions.
Talk to your child and try to understand what is prompting her behaviour.
Try to remove the temptation of self-harm, if possible, by encouraging your child to avoid situations in which she could harm herself.
Help your child think about why she is harming herself by asking if she can do anything about the cause or if something else needs to change.
Make a list of people your child can talk to such as you or your partner, other relatives, a teacher, or friends of the family.
Depending on your child's age, encourage journalling, breathing exercises, or physical activity as a way to relieve stress and anxiety.
If your child's behaviour is not changing or if you suspect she might be depressed, ask your doctor for advice. Depression and anxiety can be treated in many ways.
Writer/Editor, About Kids Health