Is self-harm really about the teenage years – or the early years?

Is self-harm really about the teenage years – or the early years?

There has been much in the press recently about teenage girls harming themselves. The figures are alarming – 1 in 5 – and social media is often blamed. But is there something else going on?

It is interesting that girls are in the headlines because – when talking about the under-threes – it is usually the boys who are reported as more vulnerable. They are said to mature later and have more negative reactions to long hours in group care than girls (Schore, Belsky).

It got me thinking – are these teenagers responding to stress in the here and now or could it be to do with early life stress they may have experienced? A person who has experienced 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is three times more likely to suffer from depression. And it’s depression and anxiety which are at the heart of self-harming. The roots of which are nearly always the early years. Someone who hasn’t experienced any ACEs will be better able to cope with the negative effects of social media but someone who has, would be more vulnerable.

The ten key Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – identified in the seminal studies on ACEs – are defined as abuse (verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect) or dysfunction in the household (parental separation, domestic violence, mental illness, substance misuse, incarceration).


A study in Wales found that almost half of all adults had had one or more of these adverse experiences and 14% had experienced 4 or more*.

The high prevalence of ACEs must surely be linked to the high numbers of girls self-harming?

Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, a leading campaigner on ACEs, says, “If we can reduce the incidences of ACEs, the effects are significant – not only for the individuals involved but for society and the economy. It is the biggest preventable public health issue.”

I think the same applies to self-harming – we should be focusing on the early years not the teenage years.


*The national survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Wales interviewed approximately 2000 people (aged 18-69 years) from across Wales at their homes in 2015.