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What causes some children to become self-destructive?

Post by on Monday, January 31, 2022

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Childhood is an integral part of an individual’s life. It lasts for an average till the age of 12. A child’s physical, social and emotional development shapes his/her overall development. Numerous psychologists focused on early childhood development research and its effects on the personality of an individual. The most famous psychologist that we know of is Sigmund Freud who emphasized greatly on childhood experiences. According to him, any problems in personality developed later on in life has their roots in childhood experiences. His entire theory revolves around the same. Moreover, we also know about Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Vygotsky, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Baumrind and many other psychologists who worked extensively on child development. We have a specific field of psychology devoted to understanding children mental health and behaviour are known as Child or Developmental Psychology. The existence of Child Psychology as a separate field shows us that a child’s mental health is equally important and it needs even more awareness. How can we know if a child is mentally healthy? We know that there is a pattern of development that is followed by each individual and if all these developmental milestones, especially emotional and social ones, are met on time, a child is considered mentally healthy. A child must be able to function well at home, in school and any other environment he/she engages in daily. A common problem with awareness regarding mental health is that we generally consider ourselves and others mentally healthy if there are no signs of mental disorders. But this is not true at all. Mental health is on a continuum where the other end is mental disorders and various levels in between. A child might not be mentally ill but still not mentally healthy. We must assess our children on this continuum to understand their well-being. While mental disorders in children which is often characterized by serious impairments in a child’s learning, behavioural and emotional development which causes distress is a completely different topic, this article focuses on children’s mental health, specifically on self-destructive behaviour in children.

What is self-destructive behaviour?

As the name itself implies, self-destructive behaviour is when an individual engages in any form of behaviour that causes either physical or emotional harm (or both). Self-destructive behaviour in children can be seen in the form of a child being violent towards himself/herself, keeping away from different relationships deliberately, not participating in play, eating and health issues, use of substances or even suicide.


What causes self-destructive behaviour?

There can be several factors behind a child being self-destructive. It can result from one factor or a combination of many factors. The most prominent factor is parental influence. There are many aspects of parenting that affects children. We will discuss these aspects one by one in this article.

Parenting style

Diana Baumrind, a developmental psychologist gave four different types of parenting styles known Authoritarian, Permissive, authoritative and Neglectful. Out of these four styles, two are such that can cause destructive behaviour in children. These two styles are:

The Authoritarian style

This is the kind of parenting style where the parents take full control of the child, demanding the characteristics they want to see in their children without caring about the child’s feelings. They are not responsive to what the child has to say are very strict and often force their opinions on the child. This in turn results in the child feeling insecure and unworthy. The child starts to find oneself inferior and incompetent which might lead to destructive behaviour such as withdrawing oneself from social relationships. The child experiences low self-esteem as he/she is unable to meet with parents’ demands and feels like they are not good enough to maintain any other relationship as well. This might also impact his/her school life as an unhealthy mind is unable to be productive either. If the parents are physically abusive, the child might become okay with the idea of violence and also indulge in self-harming behaviour. If the situation becomes adverse, the child might also start having suicide ideation and may even attempt suicide.

The Neglectful Style

These parents have no interest howsoever in the child’s life. They are quite uninvolved and indifferent to child’s needs. Either they are preoccupied with their personal, career needs or in some conflict. They are low in responsiveness and demandingness as well. A child constantly needs parents’ support, love, care, affection and guidance. Not being able to receive any of it and seeing other children receiving all of it makes them question their life. They feel unloved and unworthy and dissociate themselves from any kind of love they might receive as they are not used to it. Sometimes, they might fall into the wrong kind of relationships that harm them but they find solace in it.

Apart from parenting styles, many types of research have also shown that even if the parent's style of parenting is fine, the conflicts between the mother and father causes tension to the child as well. Daily arguments, witnessing domestic violence or parents being self-destructive and divorces can cause harm to the child’s sense of family and he/she might engage in harmful behaviour too.

Peer group

A child is a social being and has a world of his own. He/she chooses his friends and forms groups based on interests, likes and dislikes. He/she spends a lot of time with friends engaged in several activities such as studies, play and recreation. If a child has such friends who are self-destructive, the child might imitate the behaviour as proposed by social learning theory as well. Peer pressure is another factor that causes a child to engage in activities such as smoking and even drinking at a very young age which is quite self-destructive. Having conflicts in a peer groups can also be sometimes so extreme that the child starts to face emotional issues and indulge in self-harm.

Personal Trauma

Cases of sexual or physical abuse among children have risen dramatically over the past years. We hear news about a child as young as 3 years old getting raped by someone they knew closely, maybe a neighbour, a relative or even a parent. These horrifying events can be extremely traumatising for an adult, imagine the consequences on a child. The child is unable to process reality and find no ways to cope with it. Most of the time, cases of child sexual abuse even go unreported due to the child’s lack of understanding of what happened. They suppress these uncomfortable feelings which later show in their behaviour. This becomes a big contributing cause of self-destructive behaviour.

Media influence

A child also spends a lot of time in recreational activities such as watching T.V., playing video games, or even on social media nowadays. They come across several media content that promotes self-destructive behaviour in the name of entertainment. TV shows with such characters or celebrities indulging in self-destructive behaviour for a script can cause a child to normalize such behaviour and sometimes even idealize such kind of behaviour. He/she tries to imitate it without understanding the depths of it. A recent case of The Blue Whale Challenge game is a perfect example of media influence. There were several cases of children harming themselves to meet everyday challenges such as poking oneself with needles, using razors on arms, and even committing suicide as the final challenge. The effect it had on the child population was dangerous.

Lack of Awareness

The final cause can be a lack of awareness and understanding in children as well as parents. Children are unable to identify their emotions, start to feel abnormal for experiencing certain emotions and do not know the resources to get help. There is a lack of awareness among parents and caregivers as well. Parents often disregard such behaviour thinking it's just immaturity. Moreover, the stigma attached to seeking help is still prevalent in our society. A child who visits a child psychologist is labelled ‘abnormal’ which results in parents being driven away from it and a child feeling ashamed. There are not enough resources available for children. A school has very few counsellors for a big number of students. The children cannot even communicate with their parents or other caregivers due to fear. Children often make fun of other children who are engaged in self-destructive behaviour. Teachers start to behave differently with such children. There is a lack of sensitization.

There can be many other factors that contribute to a child being self-destructive. The factors mentioned above seem to be more prominent and broadly covers all factors but it does not underestimate the role of other factors. Adequate actions should be taken by every concerned individual to deal with such issues immediately. It is of utmost importance that the child meets all developmental milestones in due time including physical, social and emotional.

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