A large Australian study showed that approximately 7.6 per cent of 10-year-olds to 12-year-olds report self-harm (1).
There is a belief that self-harm rarely occurs in younger children; however, self-harm has been witnessed in children as young as three years.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm involves deliberately inflicting physical harm on your body. This can include: cutting, burning, self-poisoning, hitting, hair pulling, scratching skin and head banging.
The term “self-harm” can be confronting for people to hear, often because there is an assumption that the person is trying to die by suicide.
In the majority of cases, however, it is a coping mechanism for stress or a way to release feelings that may be overwhelming.
Adults need to support children by understanding what is happening for the child that is leading to the self-harming behaviour. A formal assessment may be required.
Other reasons for self-harming behaviour include self-punishment and using it as a way to escape or to gain a sense of control.
The risk factors for self-harm
There are a number of individual, family and social risk factors that may make a child more likely to engage in self-harm.
Some of these include low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, family neglect and abuse, exposure to trauma, persistent bullying or peer rejection, difficulty making friends and poor communication skills.
The cycle of self-harm
Once self-harm behaviour begins, it can be difficult to stop as it can be addictive because when a person inflicts pain on themselves, the body responds by producing endorphins.
This natural pain reliever gives a temporary relief or feeling of peace. This physical pain can be easier to stand than the emotional pain that led to the self-harm.
However, engaging in self-harm can itself lead to more negative feelings such as shame and embarrassment which in turn causes more self-harm.
What can early childhood services and primary schools do to reduce the risk of self-harm?
Primary school is a key time to help prevent self-harm, as children are learning how to cope with their emotions.
Schools and early childhood services are well-placed to promote protective factors that can reduce the risk that children will engage in unhelpful coping strategies such as self-harm.
School staff or educators may be the first to notice self-harming behaviour through their natural observations of children. You may notice signs in a child, such as:
- being withdrawn or depressed
- not participating in activities that require short sleeves or bathers
- high emotional reactivity
- unexplained cuts, scratches and bruises
- wearing clothing or jewellery to hide injuries
To find out how school communities can support children, watch our self-harm and primary school children video:
Some strategies for responding to self-harm
It is not the responsibility of school or early childhood staff to cope with such incidents on their own.
Developing clear and consistent policies around dealing with self-harm will benefit everyone in the school or early childhood community.
This includes identifying external services and mental health professionals who can offer support for the child, family and staff. This may include a suicide risk assessment. Any response will include the parents or carers.
- Respond calmly and with compassion to children who self-harm.
- Provide first aid for wound care.
- Appoint one or two staff members to take a lead in responding to all self-harm matters, including a member of the welfare team or school psychologist if available.
- Work collaboratively with families and external mental health support services.
- Provide support and self-care for staff who have responded to or witnessed self-harm.
For more information
The following resources are primarily designed for adolescents, but are also relevant to a primary school staff audience:
- Reach Out Information about mental health for adolescents and young people
- Headspace Information about self-harm and what young people can do to get help
(1) Swannell, S., & Martin, G. (2014). Self-injury and suicidality among Australian middle school students. Unpublished manuscript.