Understanding Boys and Self-Harm

I would like to share my experiences with how different genders interact with self-harm in a hope to broaden your understanding and ability to communicate with young people.  Although I am aware there will be many exceptions to these thoughts, I know these thoughts will support some readers.

Most studies suggest females participate in self-harm at higher rates than males. The Child and Adolescent Self-Harm in Europe CASE Study, which surveyed over 30 000 mainly fifteen and sixteen year old’s, suggests approximately 8% of females as opposed to 5% of males deliberately self-harm. The Self-harm and Suicide in Adolescents Paper specifically comments on the differences between boys and girls 12 – 15 years old, noting that the ratio as high as five or six to one.

Very few young men who I interviewed for my latest book, “SELF-HARM: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help” were willing to publicly share their experiences with self-harm.  They were also hesitant to identify with self-harm because they saw it as a ‘female issue’. Females on the other hand were very willingly shared their experiences to help others. In my experience, boys are far less likely to identify with self-harm as a coping strategy and felt isolated during the experience. 

Jacob, now 18 and visiting schools to share his story, was kind enough to talk about his experience with self-harm.  Jacob told me, “I didn't know of any other boys that self-harmed.  Frankly, I thought I was one of a few people in the world that harmed at the time, and that barely any blokes did because I saw it as mainly a girl thing (thanks Hollywood!). I did it because I just stopped caring really. I personally don't know any males that self-harm. It’s pretty uncommon in my circles.” You can see my full interview with Jacob on my YouTube account - click here

The way we socialise boys often hinders them from expressing emotional pain in ways perceived as feminine.  Expectations of handling life ‘like a man’ has a huge impact on boys and the way they verbalise pain and seek support. When I asked a group of boys if males ‘self-harm’ they answered, “Depends what you call self-harm. Boys punch things and ‘end up’ breaking their hand. They don’t mean to break their hand, but it just happens when you punch something that hard. I don’t know if that is self-harm.”  When I asked them if they intended to hurt themselves, I got a lot of “I don’t know” responses. They didn’t want to make the association.

Boys may not officially call bashing their arm against a wall self-harm but instead label it ‘venting’. Boys often hurt themselves impulsively, pushing boundaries and being reckless with the end result being harm. They are less likely to link their self-destructive thoughts with the outcome. Research certainly suggests strong differences between male and female self-harming tendencies, with males leaning towards high risk behaviour and girls tending towards self-injury.  Females were more likely to report self-cutting and overdosing but were less likely to use method such as self-battery, hanging or jumping.  

I asked Maggie Dent, author, educator and ‘champion of boys’, to comment on boys’ relationship with self-harm.  Interestingly Maggie highlighted the natural gravitation boys have to high risk behaviour, saying, “Boys often see painful moments as a part of growing aka maturation and not so much as a sign of failure....”

Maggie also drew attention to Michael Gurian’s work in ‘Saving our Sons’ where he writes about boy’s pain thresholds.  His description about male biochemistry, brain structure and pain tolerance explains that there is a significant gender differences in pain response and in pain tolerance. Maggie comments, “Michael explains that this is part of why males on the average not only feel less pain than females, but actually go out and seek more pain than females.”  

Maggie goes on to explain, “Boys hurt themselves a lot mostly unintentionally and mainly due to impulsive choices looking for fun, risk or the ‘buzz rush' of excitement often seeking a victory or a conquest - so that their inner barometer of self-worth gets filled.”

It can be hard to tell the difference between normal boy behaviour and self-harm. Behaviour could easily be misinterpreted by onlooking adults as impulsive or immature. Remember however it is the intention that defines self-harm not the behaviour itself.  I therefore wonder how much male self-harm remains unidentified, leaving young men unsupported. 

A boy’s own lack of self-awareness may lead him to jump from feeling to behaviour with little awareness of the thoughts which linked the two. It may be very difficult for him to reach out and seek help for a behaviour which he perceives as ‘normal’, or worst still the behaviour he is confused or ashamed of.  Self-awareness is something that is incredibly important to foster in our young men. Without communication and connection of feelings to thoughts, our boys really are at a disadvantage.

Boys intentions can be difficult to ‘read’ with humour often used to deflect their inner thoughts and feelings. As an example, a teacher noticed a ‘smiley’ a boy had on his arm. He had used a cigarette lighter to burn his skin. When his teacher asked about it he said, “I was just being silly.”  The boys were all joking about it and he was wearing it proudly.  When his teacher talked to me about it he said, “It is so hard to know whether boys are really in need or just mucking around.  I’m concerned about that kid. As adults we could make so many assumptions and get it so wrong. Boys are conditioned to not need help and they always leave you second guessing.”

I personally want to keep shedding light on boys who exhibit signs of poor mental health and impulsivity though may not be fully aware they are using risky behaviour to cope with or express with emotional pain or punish themselves. Those boys who are most ‘at risk’ are those who also lack supportive networks and are limited in their ability to reach out and ask for help. Young men who self-harm are at much higher risk of suicide and therefore of particular concern.

PS. Thank you for sharing. You never know the difference you could make to someone else’s life.

You can find more on this topic in my book 'Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help” available from michellemitchell.org


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