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Self-harm more common in bullied children, study shows

Louise Prime

Monday, 30 April 2012

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Being bullied greatly increases children’s risk of self-harm before the age of 12, even after controlling for physical maltreatment by their parents and family history of self-harm, research in England and Wales has shown. Authors of the study, on bmj.com, call for more effective interventions to help victims cope with their emotional distress to reduce their long-term risk of serious injury or death.

Researchers followed 1116 pairs of twins (55% monozygotic and 45% dizygotic) born in England and Wales in 1994-5; they assessed them at 5 years old and again at 7, 10 and 12 years.

At 7 and 10 years the children’s mothers were asked about whether each twin had experienced bullying: never; in isolated incidents; or frequently. At 12 years old, the children were asked privately about bullying, and whether it had happened to them “a lot”.

Bullying was defined as “when another child says mean and hurtful things, makes fun, or calls a person mean and hurtful names; completely ignores or excludes someone from their group of friends or leaves them out of things on purpose; hits, kicks, or shoves a person, or locks them in a room; tells lies or spreads rumours about them; or does other hurtful things like these. We call it bullying when these things happen often and it is difficult for the person being bullied to stop it happening. We do not call it bullying when it is done in a friendly or playful way”.

Mothers of 16.5% of children said they had been bullied frequently before the age of 10; 11.2% of children said themselves that they had been bullied “a lot” before age 12.

Mothers were also asked, when the children turned 12, about self-harming behaviour – such as cutting and biting arms, pulling out clumps of hair, banging head against walls – or attempted suicide by strangulation, in the previous six months. Self-harm data were available for 2141 children.

More than half (56%) of children who had self-harmed were victims of frequent bullying.
Girls and boys who had frequently been bullied were, overall, more than three times as likely as others to have self-harmed. Other factors that increased the risk of self-harm were parental physical maltreatment, family history of self-harming and pre-morbid behavioural and emotional problems. But even after controlling for these, as well as for other family environment factors (such as poverty, parental psychopathology and domestic violence), bullied children were about twice as likely to have self-harmed as others.

The study’s authors argue that as well as more effective programmes to prevent bullying in the first place, we need better targeted help for victims.

They conclude: “Prevention of non-suicidal self injury in young adolescents should focus on helping bullied children to cope more appropriately with their distress.

“Programmes should target children who have additional mental health problems, have a family history of attempted/completed suicide, or have been maltreated by an adult.”

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