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Self-harm in childhood is an important, though neglected area of empirical research. Research has, however, investigated the emotional and environmental factors associated with self-harm in adolescent and adult populations. This research provides a foundation from which to investigate desire to self-harm in child populations.
With regard to emotional factors, self-injurers report having a negative affect they wish to avoid (Polk & Liss, 2007). Further, distraction from emotional pain has been identified as the most prevalent motivation for self-harm across genders (Swannell, Martin, Scott, Gibbons, & Gifford, 2008). Briere and Gil (1998) found self-injury is used in an attempt to decrease dissociation and emotional distress.
Additionally, individuals who self-harm present with risk factors in their home environment. Polk and Liss (2007) found self-injurers may have lacked emotional nurturance. Oftentimes, those who self-harm report having “a good relationship with one parent and a sharply negative relationship with the other” and come from families in which anger is prohibited (Carroll, Schaffer, Spensley, & Abramowitz, 1980).
Further research has shown various types of maltreatment are related to self-harm. Brierie and Gil (1998) found childhood sexual abuse and posttraumatic symptoms are good predictors. Correlations with self-injury have also been found with childhood history of physical abuse exposure to family violence (Carroll, Schaffer, Spensley, & Abramowitz, 1980), as well as neglect (Himber, 1994).
Research has examined female self-injurers in particular. Gallop (2002) found for many women survivors of child abuse, self-harm behaviors serve as a form of self-soothing to deal with intense and painful emotions. These emotions may have become overwhelming because of suppressed expression of feelings, double messages, and lack of affection within the family (Favazza & Conterio, 1989). Favazza and Conterio (1989) also found self-harmful behavior in women to be a function of impulsivity, providing relief from racing thoughts, depersonalization, and anxiety.
The purpose of this study is to better understand the desire to self-harm in middle childhood, an age group neglected by extant research. Linear discriminant function analyses were performed to investigate emotional factors such as anxiety, dissociation and suicidality as well as home environmental factors of physical abuse, emotional maltreatment, and parental substance abuse as they relate to self-harm in seven to nine-year-olds who have been identified as “at risk” for neglect and maltreatment. The present study uses a population comparison across genders to identify differences in motivations to selfharm.
Our research hypothesis stated children exhibiting emotional distress (e.g., anxiety, higher dissociation, suicidality) would be more likely to want to self-harm than children not reporting such distress. Additionally, we hypothesized children who had environmental risk factors (e.g., histories of physical abuse, emotional maltreatment, parental substance abuse) would be more likely to want to self-harm than their counterparts without such risk factors.