Self-Harming Young People: it starts earlier than you think!


A study conducted earlier this year revealed that children show signs of self-harming an entire decade before it starts. They observed two groups of 14-year-olds, tracing their profiles back to when they were five years old. The participants of the first group had a long history of mental health, while the second group did not. Despite the mental health differences of the two groups the results showed both were manifesting specific signs from a very early age.

The study identified two main factors that were key activators; self esteem was no surprise perhaps but the other factor, interestingly, was sleep deprivation. However, some of that sleep deprivation in turn also had its roots in being insecure, being bullied, abused or feeling unloved, angry and anxious.

Emotional regulation difficulties at five years old led to a staggeringly 30-50% higher risk of self-harm as a teenager. Unsurprisingly the results showed that emotional difficulties and bullying lead to self-harm later in life. As a charity, Transitions UK are often dealing with challenges faced by young people that have their roots in experiences and behaviours that go back a long way – that is true of all of our projects.

What can be done?

The researchers recommended boosting children’s self-esteem, introducing better anti-bullying measures in schools and improving children and young people’s sleep quality to help reduce the likelihood of self-harm later in life..

How can young people in that situation be helped?


Children and young people with low or negative self-esteem lack confidence, think poorly of themselves, feel lonely and often put themselves down. Most people will feel their self-esteem fluctuate throughout their lifetime and many factors can influence how a young person may feel, including about themselves.

If we want to help a young person with low self-esteem, we need to show them that they are loved, cared for and supported. We should talk with them about their uniqueness and that it’s something special, something to be celebrated.

We can help them set achievable goals and then, when they’ve completed each goal, celebrate with them…even if it’s something small. Emphasise effort and practice over perfection. Help them understand that making mistakes and not getting it right all of the time is just part of the process. If you’re worried about your own child’s self-esteem then it’s worth seeking professional advice and maybe active help.

Sleep quality

Many factors can affect sleep quality. For children and young people, it’s crucial to have a routine. Having a set bedtime and built in wind-down time in the evening ensures predictability in their daily routine, helping their body recognise when to sleep and when to wake up, leaving them feeling more energised.

Exercise improves sleep quality. Even a ten-minute walk can help us sleep better at night, so ensuring children and young people are getting plenty of exercise is vital when addressing sleep issues.

So what now?

Love, care , consistency and non-judgemental support are massively important; for our own children and also for those we work with in the charity. Frankly, we all need those things, but those that have been hurt, neglected or abused, need it especially. Those values and approaches are implicit and vital parts of all Transitions UK projects and just as important as the other things we do around skills development, personal planning and introductions to employment and other opportunities.

Many young people who self-harm do it to survive emotionally and its an attempt to find some control in a chaotic internal life. With help, that can move into an increasingly healthy process of self-management and self-awareness.

Can you help us to help them?

At Transitions UK, we understand that resources are stretched, waiting lists for referral to mental health professionals have become increasingly longer (over a third wait more than 10 weeks and 20% wait over 6 months). As a result, many young people are not getting the support and care they need to recover and lead healthy, productive lives.

Our Affirm Project currently in North London is a targeted response to addressing those needs. Our aim is to expand this project into other London boroughs and replicate it in other areas of the country as soon as possible. If you would like to know more about this project, please click the button below.

There are several ways you can support us in helping change young people’s lives, specifically with regards the Affirm Project. You can make a donation, volunteer your time as a mentor, or help us via our various fundraising events