Possible Childhood Characteristics of Future Serial Killers

Research has demonstrated that many serial killers have much in common when it comes to their childhood experiences. Below, I provide a list of the common characteristics they may sometimes share. It goes without saying, however, that people with many or even all of these characteristics will not invariably grow-up to be serial killers! Furthermore, some serial killers will have shown few or none of the traits presented below during their childhoods.

As can be easily inferred, those who showed many of the characteristics presented below are also more likely to have developed anti-social personality disorder as adults when compared to individuals who demonstrated none of the characteristics.

1) EMOTIONAL ABUSE –

The vast majority of those who go on to become serial killers have suffered childhood abuse; most commonly, the type of abuse that they have suffered is EMOTIONAL ABUSE or NEGLECT (about half have suffered  one, the other, or both according to the available research).

Any discipline that they received as children tended to be unpredictable, arbitrary and unreasonable, usually involving the child being humiliated and degraded.

Emotional neglect impairs the child’s ability to develop empathy (lack of empathy is one of the main hallmarks of psychopathy).

2) FANTASIES –

Because the child lacks control in his own life and may be the victim of severe abuse, he will often have a propensity to escape into a world of fantasy – the fantasies will frequently revolve around the themes of CONTROL and VIOLENCE.

3) CRUELTY TO ANIMALS –

Again, many individuals who have become serial killers ‘graduated’ from tormenting and torturing animals.

4) HEAD INJURIES –

A disproportionate number of serial killers suffered one or more head injuries as children. It is thought, in particular, that damage to the LIMBIC BRAIN, HYPOTHALAMUS, TEMPORAL LOBES and PREFRONTAL CORTEX are linked to the development of violent behaviour. The first three areas are involved with aggression, emotion and motivation whereas the fourth (the pre-frontal cortex) is involved with planning and judgment.

5) VOYEURISM AND FETISHISM –

This kind of behaviour may have developed fairly young ; the individual may, for example, have  started off  his ‘career’ as a ‘peeping tom’.

6) BEDWETTING –

If this goes on over the age of about 5 years, the child may feel humiliated because of it, especially if teased about it by, for example, older siblings or cruel parents.

7) DYSFUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS –

Often, the adult serial killer began to have problems with relationships early on in life. Unable to form or maintain relationships, he is much more likely than normal to have become a ‘loner’ in adult life.

8) ALCOHOL/SUBSTANCE ABUSE –

Nearly three-quarters of serial killers grew up in homes in which other family members had problems with alcohol and/or narcotics

OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF SERIAL KILLERS’ CHILDHOODS :

– exposure to alcohol in the womb

– low self-esteem

– poor social functioning

– academic failure

– witnessing violence within the family

– a failure to complete high school

– arson

– victim of bullying

– early display of anti-social tendencies

– a fascination with weapons

– dismissive of/does not acknowledge the rights of others

– early displays of unusually high levels of violence and aggression

 

BURGESS’S MOTIVATIONAL MODEL

 

The criminologist Burgess carried out a study of sexually motivated serial killers in 1986. In this study, he was able to develop a theory relating to the kinds of childhood such individuals typically experience. I summarize his main findings below:

Burgess suggested that four main categories of childhood experiences contributed to the individuals in the study becoming serial killers. These were:

1 – they grew up in an ineffective social environment

2 – they experienced negative formative events during their childhoods

3 – they developed destructive behaviours

– breakdown of interpersonal relationships

– they developed certain critical personality traits during their childhoods

Let’s look at these in a little more detail:

1- INEFFECTIVE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT :

Burgess’ study (1986) found that those who went on to become serial killers showed a pattern of failing to bond in a healthy way to their primary caregivers, as well as a failure to bond with others in general.

Also, as children, the future serial killers’ negative behaviours very frequently remained completely unaddressed by their primary caregivers.

2 – TRAUMATIC FORMATIVE EVENTS :

It was also found in the study that, as children, the future serial killers experienced far more trauma than the ‘average’ child. These trauma s included :

– severe illness

– divorce of parents

– abandonment/rejection by parent/s

– death of parent/primary caregiver

– abuse by parent/primary caregiver (physical, sexual, emotional,or a combination of these)

It was also found that the negative effects of the above traumas were compounded by the fact that the children in the study tended to have NO SOCIAL SUPPORT SYSTEM (e.g. friends and wider family) and NO OTHER PROTECTIVE FACTORS IN THEIR LIVES (e.g. a skill or ability which raised their self-esteem).

In part as a result of the above, Burgess found that the children tended to become :

– depressed

– despairing

– suffered overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

3 – DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOURS :

In the group studied by Burgess, these destructive behaviours included :

– setting fires

– cruelty to animals

– destroying property

– burglary

– assault

– sadism

4 – BREAKDOWN OF INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS :

As the children got older, their problematic relationships with their primary caregivers tended to deteriorate further.

Many of the children, too, experienced continued EMOTIONAL NEGLECT.

Furthermore, the children were found to LACK POSITIVE ROLE MODELS and had nobody in their lives who might encourage them to act in a pro-social way.

5 – NEGATIVE PERSONALITY TRAITS :

The way in which the future serial killers were brought up tended to lend itself to the children developing negative personality traits and emotions; in Burgess’ study these were found to include :

– prone to anger, hostility and aggression

– prone to criminal and deviant behaviour

– sense of entitlement

– criminal/deviant behaviour

– rebelliousness

– a sense of having been rejected by society

– cynical and negative view of self, others and of the world in general (sometimes referred to as a NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD).

– social isolation

– lack of confidence, particularly in connection to forming relationships

– chronic/pathological lying

– tendency to retreat into a world of fantasy (see below)

THE ROLE OF A FANTASY LIFE :

Importantly, Burgess’ study found that the young people had a marked tendency to retreat into a FANTASY WORLD; this was thought to be in part due to their social isolation.

This retreat into fantasy tended to become deeper as the children grew up.

It is theorized that because these future serial killers lacked control and power in their own lives, they obtained it through the fantasies that they wove in their imaginations. In other words, they used their fantasy lives to compensate them for their inadequacies and shortcomings in the real world.

In interviews it was found that their fantasies tended to revolve around the following :

– dominance

– control

– power

– violence

– mutilation

– torture

– death

– rape

– revenge

Tragically, eventually fantasy alone could not keep these individuals’ anxiety levels at bay (it is thought such fantasies serve to reduce intolerable anxiety) and they acted them out in lethal fashion.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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