Roots of A Dangerous Habit

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New Study Investigates the Earliest Signs of Self-Injury in Children

Roots of a Dangerous HabitYoung children go through all sorts of phases, some of which can be alarming for parents. Tantrums, defiance, refusing to eat all can cause a great deal of stress. With time and patience, most of these habits fade quickly. A more disturbing problem for many families is self-injurious behavior like head banging, skin scratching or eye poking. For most children, mild behaviors such as head banging are a brief aspect of development. But for others, especially children with developmental disorders, self-injurious behavior can become chronic, increasing in severity to the point where their physical and emotional health are at risk. By then, intense and complex treatments may be necessary.

Although psychologists have developed effective treatments for chronic, severe self-injury, little work has been done in terms of how to identify and address the problem in its early stages. But researchers at Kennedy Krieger have begun a study focused on recognizing factors that indicate whether a child's early experiences with self-injury are likely to lead to a longer-term problem. "When self-injury becomes chronic, it puts people with disabilities at risk for serious injuries, including impaired vision and tissue damage," says Patricia Kurtz, Ph.D., the psychologist leading this project, which is funded by a $550,000 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a $270,000 grant from the Johns Hopkins Clinical Research Center's Neurobehavioral Research Unit. "It can also affect their quality of life by preventing them from participating in educational, vocational, social and recreational activities. Our goal is to better understand self-injury in its earliest stages and one day develop early intervention and prevention programs."

Dr. Kurtz, along with Kennedy Krieger's Michael Cataldo, Ph.D. and John Huete, Ph.D. and Anne Riley, Ph.D. of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, is recruiting 60 children under the age of five to participate. They are seeking children who have exhibited the first signs of self-injury in the six months prior to joining the study. Children will undergo quarterly assessments measuring their physical, social, academic and communication skill development. Researchers will also make home visits to observe how children behave with their parents. Parents also provide information on whether their child's self-injurious behavior continues, becomes more severe or subsides. The team hopes to determine which child and family factors make continued self-injurious behavior more likely.

Learning more about how self-injury develops and why it persists in some children can help clinicians and researchers identify children at risk for developing chronic self-injury, and help develop interventions for the behavior as soon as it starts. Therapies for severe self-injury often involve intensive behavioral programs and medication. However, the team behind this study hopes to one day develop early intervention and prevention approaches to self-injury that are much easier for parents of young children to incorporate into everyday life.

For more information on this study, call Michelle Chin at 443-923-2892.

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