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It is a well-known fact that some school-aged children have self-injured themselves in the past as a way to cope with emotional stress, but a new study has found shocking evidence that it exists even in children as young as 7 years old.
Previous studies have suggested that 1 in 5 teens and young adults engage in self-injury at some point in their life, but this is the first to find such a result in kids so young, raising awareness about a disturbing problem.
The study, based on 665 interviews with school children in Denver and central New Jersey, found that one in 12 third-, sixth- and ninth-graders in the interview had self-injured at least once without the intention of killing themselves. For third-graders alone, close to 7 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys said they had self-injured themselves. About two-thirds of those polled, said they had also done it more than once.
The study defines self-injury as cutting, carving, burning, piercing, or picking at the skin, or hitting oneself to cause pain, but not death.
"A lot of people tend to think that school-aged children, they're happy, they don't have a lot to worry about," study coauthor Benjamin Hankin, a psychologist from the University of Denver
, told Reuters
. "Clearly a lot more kids are doing this than people have known."
The report, published in the journal Pediatrics
, found that many of the children feel that causing themselves physical pain helps them cope with emotional stress. Some researchers believe that physical pain releases feel-good hormones called endorphins that can be calming.
There are a number of reasons kids might harm themselves, school troubles and bullying among them. However, the study didn't look at what caused kids to harm themselves, only whether they did or not. The study also didn't examine whether self-injury is more common among teens and younger children now than it once was, but Hankin noted the general consensus is that it is.
"The study of self-injury is relatively new, so we don't really have good data to confirm it, but just about everyone who treats these children will tell you this alarming behavior is on the rise," he told WebMD
Hankin said it is important for parents to know about self-injury and to have affected children evaluated by specialists.
"You can have young kids who are experiencing a lot of emotions, things that they don't know how to deal with it, so they start banging their head against the wall," Hankin told Reuters reporter Genevra Pittman.
Parents who believe their child may be self-injuring should consider the most helpful way to respond, even if they are upset, said Stephen Lewis, a University of Guelph in Ontario researcher who has studied self-injury. "What's important is to react in a way that conveys the parent cares about their child, and to act in a calming way and a non-judgmental way," he told Pittman.
"For parents, the first step would be to talk to their child about it, to try to understand what's going on - what's motivating it, and what might be going on in the child's life that's contributing to it," he said.
"Clearly the 1.5 percent who are meeting criteria, they're pretty serious," said Hankin. "But even those who are doing it once or twice, hopefully they can get some kind of help, because the concern is that can lead to something further," such as suicidal feelings or generally poor health.
Steve Pastyrnak, PhD, division chief of pediatric psychology at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told WebMD reporter Salynn Boyles that increased awareness of self-injury and greater attention from the media may be contributing to the problem.
Numerous seemingly popular videos have surfaced on YouTube showing teens engaging in self-injury, and a recent analysis of the trend found that only 1 in 4 of the most popular videos sent a clear message against self-injuring.
"The bright side is, typically anxiety and depression as well as (self-injury) are very treatable," Pastyrnak, who wasn't involved in the study, told Reuters Health. Psychologists might teach kids skills such as muscle relaxation, breathing and positive self-talk to help them cope with negative feelings. "With the right help, these things don't have to be long-term problems for kids," he added.