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Why Kids Kill Parents

Posted by on Dec. 18, 2012 at 9:37 PM
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Why Kids Kill Parents

Tragedy in the family: When kids murder their parents.

By Kathleen M. Heide, published on September 01, 1992 - last reviewed on December 14, 2012

A father is gunned down... a mother is bludgeoned to death... a family of four-mother, father, and two small children-is butchered alive... by a son... a daughter... a son and daughter acting together.

While tabloid television has brought us closer to the everyday horrors of our society, nothing still shocks as much as a child killing a paernt or step-parent. Such an act, though thought uncommon, is almost a daily event in the United States. Between 1977 and 1986, more than 300 parents were killed each year by their own children.

Don't think that these children fit any of the classic stereotypes--the kind we believe keeps murder at a comfortable remove. This is not another example of angry inner-city teenagers doing anything for drug money: An in-depth analysis of the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report for this period shows that, in the great majority of cases, the child who killed was a white male.

Who Kills Their Parents?

There are three types of individuals who commit parricide. One is the severely abused child who is pushed beyond his or her limits. Another is the severely mentally ill child. And the third is the darling of the tabloids, the dangerously antisocial child.

Only on occasion does a severely mentally ill child kill. These are children who have lost contact with reality. Their cases are often well documented with records of previous treatments that failed. Many of the cases are never tried; the killer is declared unfit to stand trial.

I have conducted assessment interviews with approximately 75 adolescents charged with murder or attempted murder. Seven involved youths who killed parents. Of the seven, six were male; all were white. They ranged in age from 12 to 17. Two killed both parents. As a group, they killed six fathers, three mothers, and one brother. The murder weapon, in every case, was a gun, and it was readily available in the house. Six out of the seven were severely abused children; the seventh was diagnosed as having a paranoid disorder


THEY ARE ABUSED. Child maltreatment, particularly verbal and psychological abuse, was readily apparent in these six cases; severe psychological abuse was present in five. The one girl, in addition to being physically, verbally, and psychologically abused by her father, was also sexually abused and raped by him as well. Six youths had been emotionally and physically neglected by their parents. Two had virtually no supervision at all because both of their parents were alcoholics. None of the six had been protected from harm by their parents. At least one of the youths had been medically neglected. Contrary to popular wisdom, teenagers experience all types of abuse and neglect at higher rates than young children, according to the Second National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect.

THEIR PARENTS ARE MOST LIKELY SUBSTANCE ABUSERS. In all six cases there was alcoholism or heavy drinking in the home. There was strong evidence that each of the five fathers slain was an alcoholic. Three used drugs;  one smoked marijuana and the other two used tranquilizers. One of the mothers murdered was also an alcoholic. Among the surviving spouses, chemical addiction was also common. Only one of them had reportedly never been an abuser, though her husband was an alcoholic. Two of the surviving mothers had been addicted to Valium for years as a way of coping with an abusive husband.

THEY ARE ISOLATED. These families tend to be relatively isolated because of problems in the home. The six teenagers had fewer outlets than other youths because they were expected to assume responsibilities typically performed by parents, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of younger children. One, too young to be a licensed driver, even drove his brother to school every day. These children were isolated not merely by the burden of chores but by a burden of shame. They knew their family was not the Brady Bunch. And parents had often not been hospitable to friends they had brought home.

Over the course of the years, the youths had made attempts to get help--from teachers, relatives, or even the non-abusing adult in the house--but they were either ignored or unsuccessful. Increasingly, the children's goals centered on escaping the family either through running away or suicide. Over time they felt increasingly overwhelmed by the home envitonment, which continued to deteriorate and diminished whatever support had been available. Then, already stressed to the limit, their inability to cope eventually led them to lose control or to contemplate murder in response to some new overt or perceived threat.

THEY KILL ONLY WHEN THEY FEEL THERE IS NO ONE TO HELP THEM. Just prior to the murder, life had become increasingly intolerable. In the four cases where only the abusive father was killed, the mother was not living at home at the time. In one case, the common-law stepmother did the same thing the boy's mother had done several years before: She walked out. That was one month before the homicide. In a second case, the mother was chronically ill and had been hospitalized for several weeks at the time of the murder. In each of the two other cases, the mother had divorced her husband on the grounds of physical and psychological abuse, and then allowed the children to live with the father more than a thousand miles away. One boy killed his father within a year of being left alone with him; the girl in the other case killed her father within 16 months of his common-law wife's departure.

THEY "BLOCK OUT" THE MURDER, NOT REVEL IN IT. Five out of the six cases clearly suggested that the children were in a dissociative state at the time of the killing; there was an alteration in consciousness that left the memory of the murder not integrated into awareness. These youths do not deny the murder took place or that they were responsible for it, but they have gaps in their memory of the event, "blackouts," and a sense that events were somehow unreal or dream-like during the homicide or immediately afterward.

THEY SEE NO OTHER CHOICE. The youths killed a parent or parents in response to a perception of being trapped. In two of the five cases in which there was severe physical abuse, both were reacting to a perceived threat of imminent death or serious physical injury. In the three others, the children were experiencing terror and horror even though death and physical injury were not imminent. Interestingly, in these cases, the victims were defenseless: two were shot as they lay sleeping,  the third as he sat watching television, his back to his son.

THEY ARE SORRY FOR WHAT THEY DID. While many young felons brag about their acts, these youths seemed uncomfortable with having killed. They knew their behavior was wrong, but experienced conflict over its effects--repugnance at the act they felt driven to carry out, yet relief that the victim could no longer hurt them or others dear to them. Their conflict seemed to result from a sense of their own victimization. They do not see themselves as murderers or criminals.

Ending The Madness

The true killer in these cases is child mistreatment. The significant damage comes not only in human carnage but in the death of the human spirit that persistent abuse often carries out.



Although few studies have been done, Dr. Heide, drawing on earlier work by others and her own cases, delineates the common characteristics that emerged among 50 cases of adolescents who committed such a personal crime:

o Evidence of family violence

o Attempts to get help, which failed

o Attempts to run away or commit suicide

o Isolation from peers

o Increasingly intolerable family situation

o Children feel helpless to change the home situation

o Inability to cope with what is happening to them

o No criminal record

o A gun available in the home

o Alcoholism present in parents

o Amnesia reported after murder

o Victim's death perceived as a relief by all involved.

by on Dec. 18, 2012 at 9:37 PM
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