Attachment and self-compassion: do they protect teenagers from NSSI?

Attachment and self-compassion: do they protect teenagers from NSSI?

Adolescence is an evolutionary phase characterized by rapid physical and psychological changes; it is accompanied by a high attention on interpersonal and emotional relationships with the significant figures of one’s life.


Advertising message These changes could increase the adolescent’s vulnerability to the onset of psychological disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, eating behavior disorders and depression (Lerner & Steinberg, 2009), and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).

NSSI refers to the direct, voluntary and socially unacceptable destruction of one’s body tissue in the absence of a lethal intent (Nock, 2010), although it increases the risk of future suicide attempts (You & Lin, 2015). According to a meta-analysis conducted by Swannelle colleagues in 2014, NSSI has a prevalence of 17.2% during adolescence (Swannell, Martin, Page, Hasking, & St. John, 2014). Using self-report data from 658 secondary school students, this study specifically examines two potential protective interpersonal factors for adolescents with NSSI: the quality of the adolescent’s attachment to significant others and his self-compassion (Mikulincer & Shaver , 2007; van Vliet & Kalnins, 2011). Finally,

First, attachment theory is concerned with interpreting the emotional ties of individuals in interaction with others. The relational and emotional patterns that develop with the primary care figures will constitute prototypes for future interpersonal relationships. Precisely, previous research has identified the absence of secure attachment as a risk factor for the development and maintenance of self-injurious conduct without fatal intent (Tatnell, Kelada, Hasking, & Martin, 2014).

Self-compassion can be considered an emotion-based coping strategy. It defines itself as the ability to be compassionate towards oneself and, in turn, includes the ability to understand and accept one’s failures or self-kindness with a non-judgmental attitude, the ability to recognize that one’s errors and failures are an integral part of the human experience (sense of common humanity) and the ability to be aware of one’s painful thoughts and feelings, without resorting to rumination, avoidance or denial of them (Neff, 2016). Finally, based on the “internal operating models” of attachment theory (Pietromonaco & Barrett, 2000), self-compassion can act as an underlying mechanism through which the quality of the attachment relationship protects the individual from the conduct related to the NSSI. Individuals with secure attachment perceive the other as benevolent and regard themselves as worthy of being loved, therefore their sense of value and secure connection to the other facilitate the development of self-compassion (Pepping, Davis, O’Donovan, & Pal , 2015).

Advertising message The results of this research revealed that 13.8% of the sample had experiences with NSSI during the previous year and that girls resort to these behaviors more frequently than boys. Furthermore, by comparing the group of minors who have had NSSI experiences and the group who never had experiences of this type, it emerged that they differ significantly from attachment to mother, father and self-compassion construct, while no differences emerged about attachment to peers. Finally, as regards the effects of mediation, the research found that self-compassion acts as a mediator between the adolescent’s closeness to both parents and peers with the onset of NSSI. In addition,

Specifically, the children of the “non – NSSI” group revealed an attachment to parents characterized by greater trust, communication and closeness to the other group, as well as reporting higher levels of compassion towards themselves.

In the first place, this allows us to look at self-compassion as a factor of protection against the activation of negative patterns on the self, responsible for the onset of inappropriate behaviors such as those of non-suicidal self-injury. In fact, individuals with self-kindness will tend to refrain from punishing themselves (Nock, 2010), just as subjects who have a common sense of humanity will not have feelings of social isolation, often related to self-injurious conduct (Nock, 2010) and Finally, those who are aware of their negative thoughts and accept them as such will be protected from resorting to NSSI as a strategy for regulating emotions (Heath et al., 2016).

Secondly, it appears evident that negative attachment experiences with one’s parents increase the probability of the onset and maintenance of typical NSSI behaviors.

From a clinical point of view, these results suggest the extreme importance of intervening, on the one hand on the parent-child relationship, in order to improve its quality and prevent self-harm, on the other hand on the implementation and improvement of the ability to be compassionate towards yourself. For these purposes, attachment-based family therapies will be of great use, just as it is desirable, in the school environment, to promote projects that see greater involvement of parents and which, at the same time, promote opportunities for positive interactions between peers.