Of 875 middle school-age children who were polled recently on how they handle stress, one quarter admitted to having hurt themselves on purpose when stressed or upset. The 9- to 13-year-olds who admitted to having hurt themselves when stressed said things like — “I banged my head against the wall on purpose” or “I pinched myself really really hard.”
“What this means to me,” Dr. D’Arcy Lyness told Reuters Health, “is that emotion can be so strong that it is overwhelming and kids don’t know how to handle it and they sometimes blame themselves. Hurting themselves is a way to take it out on them.”
“Obviously, this is not a healthy coping mechanism but it certainly seems to be happening in a pretty significant amount of kids,” said Lyness, a licensed child and adolescent psychologist and behavioral health editor at KidsHealth in Wilmington, Delaware, the organization that conducted the poll.
Kids who admitted to hurting themselves on purpose when stressed were also more likely than those who did not to say they lose their temper, keep their troubles to themselves, feel bad about themselves, and were less likely to try to work things out. This suggests, Lyness said, that certain teens and tweens have a tendency toward poorer coping skills in general and need extra help developing more effective ways to cope with stress and manage their emotions.
What makes 9- to 13-year-olds feel stressed? “Not surprisingly, things that are important in their lives,” Lyness said. Top responses included grades, school and homework, followed by family issues such as getting along with siblings and worries about what’s going on at home, followed closely by peer group issues like being bullied and making and having friends.
The “good news” from the KidsHealth KidsPoll, Lyness said, is that most of the children had more than one “pretty decent way” of handling stress or reacting to it.
The most common coping skills were the distracter type responses — watching TV or playing a video game ranked highest on the list. “These are really good coping skills for brief minor stressors like losing a big game for example,” said Lyness. “It’s really good for kids to be able to distract themselves and shift their mood. It helps them get past the stressor instead of dwelling on it.”
What can parents do to help kids when they are stressed or upset? Most of the kids polled ranked “talk with them about it” as the number one thing parents can do to help, even though kids ranked “talk to a parent” as one of the least likely actions they initiated when stressed.
“This is an important finding,” Lyness said. “I think parents assume that kids will come to them when they are stressed or upset. But many times stress is something that kids keep to themselves. They don’t necessarily speak up about it even though they really want parents to bring it up, to notice when they are feeling stressed and upset.”
Lyness also encourages parents to “put names to the emotions, label the emotions their children are having. This can help children recognize the emotions and muddle through those emotions.”