Family environment, expressed emotion and adolescent self-harm: A review of conceptual, empirical, cross-cultural and clinical perspectives

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Abstract

Self-harm in young people is a complex and pervasive problem with a number of co-existing risk factors. Although research has implicated a range of family variables in understanding the onset, maintenance and prevention of adolescent self-harm, relatively little attention has been given to the expressed emotion (EE) construct. Based on a narrative review and synthesis of peer-reviewed literature up to and including 2011, this paper considers the conceptual background and empirical evidence for the role of family environment in the expression of adolescent self-harm, with a particular focus on EE. The clinical implications of this literature for working with young people and families from different cultures are also addressed. In summary, the surveyed research provides insufficient evidence for a direct causal link between family environment and adolescent self-harm, with questions raised about the temporal sequencing of measured variables, specificity of implicated family risk factors, and the nature and role of protective factors in families. Emerging evidence for an association between high EE and adolescent self-harm requires replication in well-controlled, prospective studies. There is also a lack of empirically-supported, family-based treatment modalities for adolescents who self-harm. Intervention strategies should be guided by personalised formulation, taking into account individual vulnerabilities, strengths and social contexts, as well as cultural norms for family environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106-114
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Review of Psychiatry
Volume24
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012

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