COMMENTARY | I struggled with severe pediatric depression from an early age, with my symptoms beginning before I even entered preschool. Then, as now, I faced a degree of incredulity from others, who would insist that depression affects only adults -- that children are too innocent or too carefree to experience it. We collectively idealize childhood as a time of joy and perfection, dismissing signs of depression and self-harm in children even when they are abundantly clear.
An alarming study by the American Academy of Pediatrics highlighted a hidden and disturbing pattern among young children. The study's authors found that, out of 665 children 7 to 14 years of age, 8 percent had engaged in some form of non-suicidal self-injury. Until now, experts widely associated self-injury with adolescence, with the Mayo Clinic attributing it to teenage struggles such as peer pressure and resistance to authority. We now know otherwise: this unsettling new study demonstrates that self-harm is as common in young children as it is in early adolescence.
The techniques and patterns of self-injury used by young children differed somewhat from those of teenagers. Nearly half of children who engaged in self-harm cut or carved their own skin, with girls engaging in this practice more often than boys. Half of self-harming children hit themselves, with self-hitting being most common among the youngest children reviewed. In the older age groups studied, self-hitting became more rare, with older kids preferring to burn themselves or insert objects into their skin.
Self-harming behaviors in children can't be overlooked as benign experimentation or a simple phase in emotional development. Even in the youngest of children, self-injury is a red flag for serious mental health disturbances such as clinical depression, clinical anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Like their older peers, young children who injure themselves are demonstrating symptoms of serious conditions that need to be addressed promptly and professionally.
As a parent, I try to make an effort to take my daughter's emotions seriously. I will never tell her that she is too young to be depressed or that she is silly for feeling anxious. I know that childhood is not always a time of perfection and joy, and that disturbances in mental health -- no matter the age at which they occur -- need to be taken seriously. Parents and practitioners owe it to our children to seriously consider and address these issues, no matter when they arise.
Juniper Russo is a freelance writer, health advocate, and dedicated mom living in Chattanooga, Tenn.