What are the problems most troubling our teenagers?


With sharp rises in racist bullying and self-harm, new figures from ChildLine provide a stark insight into the issues affecting our young people. Pete Henshaw takes a look.

In the past year, there has been an alarming rise in the number of young people contacting ChildLine about self-harm, with girls being 15 times more likely to seek help than boys.

The disturbing finding is among the headline figures in ChildLine’s annual report – entitled Can I Tell You Something? – which looks to identify the key needs and concerns of young people and how they are changing over time.

More than 280,000 children and young people contacted ChildLine during 2012/13, with 56 per cent aged 12 to 15 and 31 per cent aged 16 to 18. A further 13 per cent were 11 and under.


The figures show that self-harm is now ranked as the fourth most common reason for someone to contact ChildLine after the year saw a 41 per cent increase in calls and messages about this issue.

Also notable is the number of girls who sought help. Of the 22,532 young people who contacted ChildLine about self-harm, 12,643 were girls and just 856 were boys (9,033 were unidentified). There was also a 50 per cent rise in contacts about self-harm from 12-year-olds.

The review states: “Almost one third of young people (said) that they were actively self-harming – meaning they had very recently self-harmed. Where this was the case, they frequently admitted that it was not the first time they had self-harmed and that it was something they felt would be very difficult to stop. They often explained that it had become a habit, and they felt reliant on the sense of relief brought about by the pain.”

Methods of self-harming varied, including cutting (talked about by one in three) but also suffocation, asphyxiation and hitting (more common with boys) and scratching or burning (more common with girls).

Feeling suicidal

The review also uncovers a 33 per cent rise in the number of children contacting ChildLine about suicidal thoughts and feelings. This includes more than 4,500 children aged 12 to 15. Last year, 60 per cent of referrals made by ChildLine to emergency or social services involved a child being “actively suicidal”.

While 17-year-olds are the age group most commonly affected by this issue, the biggest increase year-on-year has been among 12 to 15-year-olds. 

The review states: “Many of the young people ... were often in desperate situations where they felt like there was no other way out. They talked about subjects including previous or ongoing abuse, family relationship breakdown, bullying, mental health issues, school pressures and fear of failure. 

“They often talked about feeling depressed, having low self-esteem and being overwhelmed with what was happening in their lives. For some, suicide was an impulsive reaction which they felt would be the only solution to a problem they were experiencing at the time.”


In the past year, ChildLine has received 32,890 contacts from children and young people experiencing some form of abuse – including physical, sexual, emotional, neglect – with the issue being brought up in a further 29,408 counselling sessions.

Physical abuse represented 42 per cent of all abuse-related concerns, and 90 per cent of these involved a perpetrator who was a family member. Sexual abuse represented a further 38 per cent, with nearly half of abusers, when they were identified, being family members. The report states: “A third of all young people contacting ChildLine about sexual abuse had not told anyone about it – showing how difficult it is for children and young people to talk about sexual abuse and that far too many continue to suffer in silence.”


There has also been a sharp rise in counselling about cyber-bullying, with 4,500 young people contacting ChildLine for support and advice on how to deal with being bullied via social networking sites, chatrooms, online gaming sites, or via their mobile phones – an 87 per cent increase.

However, the figures show that most bullying still occurs in schools, with 19,795 young people reporting this. The review highlights that many young people had spoken to school staff about the issue but too often felt that not enough had been done. It states: “Nearly 8,500 young people said they’d actively sought help from a teacher at school. However, in too many cases, those same children told ChildLine they had been left feeling that little or nothing had been done to stop the bullying.”

Counselling about racist bullying also rose by 69 per cent, with more than 1,400 sessions taking place.


Overall, the most common concern raised by young people in the past year relates to depression and unhappiness. This includes feeling sad, low self-esteem, or confidence and/or body image issues.

ChildLine recorded 35,941 counselling sessions on this issue, with a further 51,918 where it was mentioned as an additional issue. It was the top concern for girls and for young people aged 16 to 18.

Within these figures, 20,753 young people contacted ChildLine because they were struggling with feelings of stress and anxiety. School and exam pressures were one of the biggest causes. 

This was mirrored by the fact that in 2012/13, ChildLine carried out 30,429 counselling sessions with young people who mentioned school and education problems, a 17 per cent increase from 2011/12.

Elsewhere, 13,257 contacts came from young people seeking support about low self-esteem, confidence or body image issues, while 3,000 contacts involved money problems.

The review states: “These are issues that have not yet become so severe that they can be classified as severe depression or a mental health issue, but research shows that poor emotional wellbeing in childhood can result in more serious mental health problems developing later on in life. Therefore it is crucial that we help young people identify the underlying issues before they escalate into something much more serious.”


For the first time, ChildLine has seen more counselling taking place via email and online than via telephone (59 vs 41 per cent). The ChildLine website last year received 2.4 million visits – a 28 per cent increase. In total, ChildLine has helped more than 3.2 million children and young people since its launch in 1986.

Top 10 reasons young people contact ChildLine

All young people aged up to 18 (number of contacts)

  1. Depression and unhappiness 35,941
  2. Family relationships 35,154
  3. Bullying/online bullying 30,387
  4. Self-harm 22,532
  5. Suicidal issues 14,863
  6. Problems with friends 14,285
  7. Physical abuse 13,880
  8. Sexual abuse and online sexual abuse 12,431
  9. Puberty and sexual health 11,262
  10. Mental health issues 9,474

12 to 15-year-olds (number of contacts)

  1. Family relationships 13,458
  2. Bullying/online bullying 11,690
  3. Depression and unhappiness 10,876
  4. Self-harm 8,174
  5. Physical abuse 5,829
  6. Sexual abuse and online sexual abuse 5,086
  7. Problems with friends 4,672
  8. Puberty and sexual health 4,599
  9. Suicidal issues 4,504
  10. School or education problem 3,711

16 to 18-year-olds (number of contacts)

  1. Depression and unhappiness 7,243
  2. Family relationships 6,925
  3. Suicidal issues 3,575
  4. Self-harm 3,337
  5. Problems with friends 3,191
  6. Sexual abuse and online sexual abuse 3,073
  7. Mental health issues 3,043
  8. Puberty and sexual health 2,842
  9. Pregnancy and parenting 2,278
  10. Bullying/online bullying 2,151

Girls (number of contacts)

  1. Depression and unhappiness 19,054
  2. Family relationships 18,537
  3. Bullying/online bullying 14,653
  4. Self-harm 12,643
  5. Suicidal issues 8,461
  6. Problems with friends 8,321
  7. Sexual abuse and online sexual abuse 6,894
  8. Physical abuse 6,318
  9. Puberty and sexual health 5,889
  10. Mental health issues 5,452

Boys (number of contacts)

  1. Bullying/online bullying 6,724
  2. Family relationships 5,556
  3. Depression and unhappiness 5,208
  4. Physical abuse 4,066
  5. Sexual abuse and online sexual abuse 3,324
  6. Puberty and sexual health 3,164
  7. Sexual and gender identity 1,992
  8. Problems with friends 1,896
  9. Their own behaviour (abusers) 1,740
  10. Suicidal issues 1,579

Further information

Young people can contact ChildLine at any time on 0800 1111 and at www.childline.org.uk



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