Girls with critical mothers are more likely to have self-injured

Preteen girls with highly critical mothers are more likely to have engaged in non-suicidal self-injury, including cutting and burning, according to a new study published in Psychiatry Research.

“My research focuses on self-injurious thoughts and behaviors in youth. I am particularly interested in the impact of interpersonal relationships (e.g., the parent-child relationship) on the development and maintenance of these thoughts and behaviors,” said study author Kiera M. James of Binghamton University.

Previous research has found that the children of highly critical parents are more likely to have self-injured. But “most of the existing research in this area has focused on adolescents, which prompted us to examine whether patterns during adolescence are also present in childhood,” James explained.

The study of 204 children (ages 7-11) and their mothers found that girls exposed to maternal criticism were more likely to have deliberately engaged in self-injurious behaviors. Nearly 60 percent of girls with a critical mother had a history of non-suicidal self-injury.

The researchers assessed maternal criticism by asking the mothers to speak for five uninterrupted minutes about their child and how the two of them get along together. The mothers’ audiotaped statements were later coded for levels of criticism.

“Our study suggests that, among children, girls with a critical mother were more likely to have a history of self-injury than girls without a critical mother. Moreover, these results were specific to girls, and were not significant among boys,” James told PsyPost.

The researchers statistically controlled for the impact of depressive and anxiety symptoms. But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“This study was cross-sectional. For this reason, although our results are consistent with our hypothesis that maternal criticism increases risk for non-suicidal self-injury in girls, we cannot be certain of the direction of our results from our design,” James said.

“Further, in this study, we focused specifically on maternal criticism. Thus, further research is necessary to examine the potential impact of criticism from fathers and other important adults in the child’s life, as well as the potential protective role of more positive and supportive messages.”

The study, “Maternal Criticism and Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in School-Aged Children“, was authored by Kiera M. James and Brandon E. Gibb.