Victims of bullying more likely to self-harm

May 10, 2012

Children who are bullied by their peers when they are younger are up to 3 times more likely to harm themselves in adolescence. A new study has found several indicators that clinicians can use to help identify young patients most at risk for self-harm.

Children who are bullied by their peers when they are younger are up to 3 times more likely to harm themselves in adolescence, according to a new study that found several indicators to help identify young patients most at risk for self-harm.

The study of 1,116 pairs of twins born from 1994 to 1995 and followed when aged 5, 7, 10, and 12 years assessed the risks of self-harming in the 6 months before the children’s twelfth birthdays. Researchers found that nearly 8% of victims of frequent bullying deliberately harmed themselves, whereas only 2% of children who were not bullied had engaged in self-harming behaviors.

The study also found that children who had been bullied and who had engaged in self-harming behaviors were significantly more likely to have a family member who had attempted or completed suicide and to have been physically maltreated by an adult. They were also more likely to present with conduct disorder, borderline personality characteristics, depression, and psychotic symptoms.

Children with low cognitive abilities were at greater risk of being targeted by bullies as well as engaging in self-harming behaviors.

Bullying was defined as when another child says mean or hurtful things; completely ignores or excludes the victim; hits, kicks, or shoves the victim; tells lies or spreads rumors; or does other hurtful things, all on a frequent basis. Examples of self-harm included cutting and biting arms; pulling out clumps of hair; banging one’s head against walls; and attempting suicide by strangulation.

The researchers note that frequent exposure to bullying is associated with high levels of distress and suggest that adolescents resort to self-harm as a coping mechanism. Children may use self-harm after their attempts to talk to others about their distress have not been successful and more drastic, attention-seeking behaviors are needed.

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