In very extreme circumstances, and very rarely, children kill. Almost invariably, such a child has been deprived of love and nurturing, or has bee abused or rejected, or has suffered a combination of all or any of these. S/he is full of rage due to this treatment and this is displaced onto society in general and particular individuals within that society.
Criminologists have identified several categories (or ‘typologies’) of child killer. In this article, I will focus on five of these typologies. They are:
- FAMILY KILLERS
- SCHOOL KILLERS
- GANG-BASED KILLERS
- HATE KILLERS
- SEX KILLERS
Let’s examine each of these five typologies in turn :
1) FAMILY KILLERS: Child killers in this group are likely to have suffered extremely severe ill-treatment from their parent/s and, as a result, have built up a profound sense of anger towards them which has perhaps been festering for years. A particular ‘triggering event’ can then cause them to ‘snap’, particularly if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Sometimes, too, such children will have been living in constant terror of their parent/s so that the murderous act is a form of self-defense/self-protection.
The psychologist and researcher Heide has found that there is a very powerful association between the act of patricide (murder of the father) and of the child who commits patricide having been severely abused by that father (especially when the abuse has been emotional or physical).
2) SCHOOL KILLERS: Often, children who shoot their teachers/contemporaries in attacks on their school have suffered years of bullying at that school. The effects of this treatment have also usually been exacerbated by them also having suffered severe abuse at home.
It is likely, too, that such children have displaced their hatred of their parent/s onto authority figures in general (hence the attack on their teachers).
Other factors that contribute to the development of the child ‘school killer’ include isolation and lack of social support/lack of friendships, having a dominant father which makes him feel powerless and a weak sense of identity – their decision to become a ‘school killer’, then, in their own minds, finally gives them the power and identity that they perceive themselves to have previously lacked.
3) GANG-BASED KILLERS: Children who join gangs often come from violent homes. Joining a gang provides them with a sense of identity, status, belonging, and safety (ie safety in numbers)
Because of these psychological gains, they are often desperate to be accepted by the gang and, as such, are liable to have their misplaced loyalty to it ruthlessly exploited by its leader/s, even to the extent of being manipulated into murdering rival gang members.
Other factors which make a young person more likely to join a gang include lack of interests/hobbies, a sense of powerlessness (joining the gang gives him/her a sense of power), and poverty (being in a gang can be financially rewarding in the short-term, eg from drug dealing, muggings, etc)
4) HATE KILLERS: These are children who kill others on the grounds of their differences (eg race, religion, sexuality, etc). They are likely to have been influenced by their parents’ prejudices and/or the prejudices held by other members of their community/sub-culture).
Again, such children have usually experienced severe ill-treatment at home and have developed a deep sense of powerlessness which they attempt to rectify through an extreme, violent act.
5) SEX KILLERS: Again, such child killers have usually experienced extreme abuse at home and have developed a deep sense of inadequacy, worthlessness, and rock-bottom self-esteem. Their crime is linked to their sense of powerlessness and a need to ‘assert their masculinity.
Background of children who kill
As stated above, almost without exception children who kill have experienced extreme family dysfunction including neglect, domestic violence, abuse, maternal depression, having a parent who abuses alcohol or narcotics, abandonment, lack of bonding, and family disruption. Children from such backgrounds can become grossly impaired in terms of their ability to love and trust others. (Wolf, 2001; McKelvey, 1988).
Strehlow (1988) followed up fifteen adolescents who had been convicted for murder or attempted murder. The study found that of the ten individuals who had been released from custody, their social adjustment was found to be good after an average of seven and a half years. Indeed, there exists an extremely strong argument that children who kill should be treated far more leniently than adults as vital brain regions such as the frontal cortex (a part of the brain involved, among many other functions, in impulse control) is not fully developed until a person reaches his/her mid-twenties.
Strehlow U, Piesiur-Strehlow B, Muller-Kuppers M. Homicide by adolescents from the viewpoint of adolescent psychiatric expert opinions. Z Kinder Jungendpsychiatr. 1988;16:80–86. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
C A McKelvey, 1988, Children Who Kill NCJ Number 113163 JournalSchool Safety Dated: (Spring 1988) Pages: 12-16
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).