Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why Kids Kill Parents: Child Abuse and Adolescent Homicide

Criminologist Kathleen M. Heide’s Why Kids Kill Parents: Child Abuse and Adolescent Homicide is a lucid examination of how adolescents come to kill their parents. (Appropriately, the book was lent to me by a legal aid solicitor who is also a crime writer.)

Studying such acts (how much they are crimes rather varies) is inhibited by its taboo nature and its comparative rarity. In the US, between 1977 and 1986, more than 300 parents were killed each year. Which sounds like a lot, but is not in a country the size of the US: particularly given only a minority of the killers were adolescents. Few of the latter have been studied.

Fathers were killed at slightly younger ages than mothers, stepparents at slightly younger ages than biological parents. Adolescents were the killers for 15% of mothers killed, 25% of fathers, 30% of stepfathers and 34% of stepmothers. By comparison, only 10% of those arrested for homicide in the same period were under 18 (Pp3-4). (Children are wildly more at risk of abuse or murder by stepparents than by biological parents: the former likely affects the propensity for children to kill stepparents.)

The book is divided into three parts: facts and issues; case studies; implications, practical suggestions, and future directions.

The facts and issues section is fairly grim, but enlightening. Heide writes very clearly, which makes what she has to say more powerful. The first part includes things such as a nice differentiation of terror from horror:
Individuals experience horror when they are witnesses to events that are so shocking that their minds cannot fully comprehend them. Though there is no physical threat, the events are traumatizing to them and may stay lodged in their minds for years. Although fear may be an element of horror, the predominant feelings associated with horror are shock and dread, not fear. Individuals react with terror or experience intense fear when their physical survival is threatened. With terror, both body and mind are affected. Terror immobilizes the body just as horror stuns the mind. Events that are terrifying, unlike those that are horrifying, have a beginning and an end: one wins or loses, one escapes or is captured, one is assaulted or spared, one lives or dies (p.22).
Which is why people watch horror films for the intense experience but terrorism is a political strategy, and one that requires regular reinforcement to keep the fear alive.

So much of the story Heide tells is about power imbalances, abuse and despair. She is a notably clear and unsentimental thinker:
A child’s consent to be sexually expressive with a parent is meaningless because of differences in development and power between adult and child. A child who appears to consent to sexual behaviour with a parent may simply be acceding to the parent’s sexual demands in an unconscious effort to get his or her own needs for attention, affection, love, safety, and a sense of belonging met (p.23).
Her discussion of dysfunctional families is clear and comprehensive. But, as her analysis makes clear, understanding family dysfunction is necessary for understanding why children can be driven to kill their parents.

For that is what most such cases by children under 18 clearly involve. Heide covers physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological or emotional abuse, then physical and medical neglect, emotional neglect and emotional incest. Being a child of emotional abuse and neglect (a largely emotionally absent father, a very controlling mother apparently unable to provide praise or physical affection but very ready with the “why do you do this to me?” criticism) the analysis rang true for me. (The issue of abuse is largely independent of the question about whether parents love their children: indeed, if the child is convinced that the parent loves them, that can make the abuse more destructive, since the child is even more likely to blame themselves – after all, if a parent loves their child but shows no affection, then of course it must because the child is flawed and the parents are therefore heroic for loving such an unlovable person.)

Heide then examines the data concerning which youths kill. The serious study of such cases is relatively recent, the first study by a mental health professional being published in 1941 with fewer than a dozen case studies specifically addressing adolescent parricide appearing from then to the publication of Heide’s Why Kids Kill Parents. Her assessment interviews with about 75 adolescents charged with murder or attempted murder, which included seven cases of adolescents who killed parents, thus provide a significant expansion of available data (Pp35-6). She tabulates data from previous case studies to identify commonly identified factors (Pp40ff).

Heide notes that the small number of cases of adolescents killing parents makes it clear that it is impossible to identify which children will kill, but it is possible to identify which youths are at risk. She identifies the key risk factors as:
(1) The youth is raised in a chemically dependant or other dysfunctional family.
(2) An ongoing pattern of family violence exists in the family.
(3) Conditions in the home worsen, and violence escalates.
(4) The youth becomes increasingly vulnerable to stressors in the home environment.
(5) A firearm is readily available in the home (p.44).
A friend who was raised by a physically abusive malignant narcissist of a mother said the only useful thing his father did was bring home a copy of Lord of the Rings when he and his brother were 13 and 15, so that they were able to see what was happening in their house was small stuff and there were much bigger issues in a much wider world.

Heide identifies the characteristics of functional families before moving on to dysfunctional families. The rules of dysfunctional families can be identified as: don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel (p.48). Needless to say, children in dysfunctional families are far more at risk of abuse than functional families. The children of addicted parents, for example, are at very high risk of emotional neglect. Part of the problem being that the non-addicted parent is often so busy attending to the issues arising from their partner’s alcoholism, drug use, gambling or whatever they have no emotional attention left for their children (Pp49-50).

This all leads to isolation as a serious problem for children of dysfunctional families. A pattern of increasing abuse, murder of partner or flight by the non-abusive parent followed by, in the case of flight, the child being expected to take over more and more household responsibilities (which both stresses the child and provides more points of potential conflict) is likely. If a downward spiral continues, the situation may become increasingly intolerable. If a firearm is present, the chance of the child killing the parent rises dramatically (Pp50ff).

The presence of firearm is the most common risk factor: 82% of fathers, 75% of stepfathers, 65% of mothers and 56% of stepmothers murdered by juveniles were killed by a firearm of some sort (p.53). Clearly, the pattern partly reflects whether a firearm more easily overcome an imbalance in size and strength.

Heide then examines the legal and psychological issues, since the two interact: particularly, but not only, in the question of mental competence at the time of the act – there is also the issue of whether the child is in situation of continual threat even if the threat was not immediate at the time of the killing. Part of the story here is increasing, if still erratic, understanding that there is often a much larger story behind the final, possibly desperate, act.

But part of the problem is the genuine complexities. If one puts homicides on two axes (intention to kill, desire to hurt) then we can identify situational (low desire to hurt or kill), intentional (low desire to hurt, high intent to kill), emotionally reactive (high desire to hurt, low intent to kill) and nihilistic (high desire to hurt and to kill) murders. Identifying which a case falls into is important, both for justice and because nihilistic killers are likely to remain dangerous individuals (Pp60ff).

In Part II, Heide precedes the case studies with an examination of assessment and its implications. This really ticked some boxes for me. Heide starts with:
Understanding why a particular youth killed a parent requires knowledge of the adolescent, his or her family, and the home environment (p.67).
This is why I tend to be deeply sceptical of therapy: the counsellor or therapist is, far too often, completely dependant on what the client tells them for their knowledge of the particular case. Taking into account self-delusion, ignorance, failure of perception, etc, how likely is this to be reliable information? Let alone sufficient information. Narcissists, for example, often get worse under counselling or therapy, as it validates their emotions – the physically abusive malignant narcissist of a mother mentioned above once announced to her children that her therapist had agreed she had not been hard enough on them (apparently, she should have broken more of their bones: in reality, the therapist probably had no idea that broken bones were an issue).

Forensic psychologist Nigel Latta’s point that he never bothers reading case files, since that is only a record of the lies the offender has told previous clinicians, may apply with particular force with the sex offenders who are his clients but the problem is extendable. Especially given Latta can use the trial records to find out what happened, a source of information not normally available about clients of therapy.

But it is worse than that. According to an article in Quadrant by Dale Atrens, Reader Emeritus in Psychobiology at the University of Sydney:
Treatments ranging from old-fashioned talk therapy through to modern cognitive-behavioural therapy are typically little better than placebos. Almost any treatment produces some benefit in the short-term. Alas, this therapeutic benefit is often short-lived. Therapy typically becomes less effective over time. More is not better: it is worse. Strange medicine
For example, those subject to therapeutic debriefing after a traumatic event are 22% more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after 3 to 5 months: one study that they were three times more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after 12 months than those who did not de-brief. Similarly, folk who “go it alone” in quitting smoking (or drug addiction, or gambling) are much more likely to stop and keep to it than those use therapy or support groups.

Between the wish that there be an effective available treatment and contemporary belief in The Awesome Power of Words, a dangerous superstition is widely supported: even, at times, legally mandated.

None of which negates Heide’s point that an in-depth personality assessment, analysis of the family dynamics and the home environment of the adolescent killer is necessary to understand what went on.

The three case studies Heide presents are fascinating, in a grim sort of way. They also include analysis, comments and asides on psychological processes and personality disorders. Such as:
The narcissist is absorbed with his image and invests himself in maintaining an image rather than being who he is (p.121).
Not quite how I would put it: I would say the narcissist invests in maintaining a fictional self rather than facing reality inconvenient to that such that their convenience becomes their reality principle. They invest rather a lot in being narcissistic.

Depressingly, there is evidence that narcissism is increasing and empathy decreasing, at least in the US. But wasn’t it John Kenneth Galbraith, or possibly Gore Vidal, who said the advantage of sharing a planet with the US is that you get to see what was going to happen in your society before it did?

The most vivid story is, however, not from any of the three in-depth case studies, but one that Heide relays in her Preface: of a 16 year old boy with two older sisters, who had left home, leaving him the sole target of abuse, trying to sneak out to leave himself. The house was arranged so he had to go through his parents’ bedroom. His father wakes up, knocks him down, pushes him over when he got up, then backs him into a closet. Which had a loaded shotgun. The terrified juvenile then shot his father. At this point, his mother awoke and sat up. The terrified juvenile then shot her too. In trying to recount the incident later, the teenager reported:
when she sat up in bed … the agony within the terror … The rest of its is more or less, sort of hazed out for me. I remember waking up completely. Standing there looking at the two bodies. Two people. What have I done now, you know. Like it was a dream (p.xiii).
Four petitions detailing neglect, abuse and physical abuse had been filed about that household. Three have been filed in the previous two years, all naming the son as being subject to abuse. He spent three months in foster care with an older sister and her husband. Then nine months in supervised care back with his parents. As Heide reports:
Ten months after the state agency terminated supervision, Mr and Mrs Adams were dead. Terry Adams was charged with two counts of first-degree murder (p.xiv).
Terry pled guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, was sentenced to life imprisonment and released on parole after seven years. The sentencing judge had presided over the dependency proceedings.

So, what to do? Heide is a supporter of therapy beginning as soon as possible after the killing and based, as indicated, on thorough and careful assessment. The issues she discusses are basically about providing after-the-fact replacement-parenting. While the discussion of the pattern and consequences of abuse is perspicacious, there is, alas, good reason to be sceptical about the prospects of therapeutic success. (Though Heide is, at least, advocating a course of action that avoids the normal epistemic problems of therapy.)

One of the themes is how often teachers, neighbours, relatives did nothing when told of abuse. Terry Adams is eloquent about why one should respond to a child who tells of abuse, while another case study killer, Scott Anders, is bitter about those who would not believe, would not help, when he told them. Since a sense of isolation and despair – that it will never get better – seems to be a key factor in adolescents killing their parents, this is a powerful point. (When I intimated to my mother’s younger sister – my Godmother – that there may have been a few issues with my upbringing, her response was so defensive of my mother – and hence so dismissive of what I had to say about my experience – that we have not spoken since. And I was in my 40s: how much more easily dismissed is a child or teenager?)

Heide suggests a range of measures such as having easily available classes in child development and parenting skills and school courses in child abuse and neglect (though the latter immediately make me wonder what use toxic kids may make of such information). Heide makes a point that is easily forgotten:
Abuse and neglect are not always obvious to their victims. When abuse and neglect are discussed in university classes, some students become aware for the first time that they were abused or neglected as children (p.54).
Or, in my case, they read an appropriate blog post by a psychblogger. If abuse and neglect are your “normality” and have been for years, are what you grew up with, it can be very hard to see it for what it is. Which helps create the pattern that Heide notes, that abusive parents were often abused children.

Heide suggests that Florida’s volunteer child guardian system is one worthy of wider adoption (Pp157ff). If isolation and despair are risk factors, providing an effective support and advocacy network is clearly likely to be beneficial. Heide suggests that the media can usefully popularise the existence of help services and centres, again breaking down the isolation and despair. Most of all, Heide hopes that criminal justice systems show intelligent mercy for an abused child driven to kill their parent or parents.

She concludes the main part of her text (there is a brief appendix, summarising the statistical evidence) with a story attributed to the Minnesota Literacy Council:
An old fisherman stood on the beach watching a young boy at the shoreline. As the fisherman approached, he saw that the boy was picking up starfish, which had been washed ashore by the waves, and was throwing them back into the sea. When the fisherman caught up with the boy, he asked the boy what he was doing. The boy did not stop his effort as he told the fisherman that he was throwing the starfish back into the sea so that they could live. If left until the morning sun, the starfish would die. The fisherman’s eye scanned the beach, revealing thousands of starfish ashore. He said, “But, son, there are thousands upon thousands of starfish on the beach. What difference can your actions possibly make?” As the boy hurled another starfish into the sea, he looked the old man in the eye and said, “It makes a difference to this one” (p.161).


  1. I really like the information that this site provides(: It really helped me when it came to writing my paper on whether or not I think kids who commit violent crimes should be charged as an adult. In my honest opinion, I think it depends on the case. Like Terry Adams, for killing both of his parents, I don't neccessarily think that he should be charged as an adult because it was an act of self defense; he was being abused. An example of someone I think deserved to get charged as an adult was Lionel Alexander Tate. At first I felt sorry for him, but then after I read the full story at Do you want to read the story and decide on whether or not you think his sentencing was fair? Read the full story at

    1. Glad you like the site, but commenting on specific cases when not aware of all the evidence is something I try to avoid.

  2. well it depends on the case before even placing first degree murder charges on kid. There needs to be an proper investigation because if there is witnesses to the parents who abused that child and the had to kill the parents. That is self defense because these parents are satan and deserved what they got. Therefore the child might need some help, but sometimes the child did the right thing.

  3. well it depends on the case before even placing first degree murder charges on kid. There needs to be an proper investigation because if there is witnesses to the parents who abused that child and the had to kill the parents. That is self defense because these parents are satan and deserved what they got. Therefore the child might need some help, but sometimes the child did the right thing.

  4. well it depends on the case before even placing first degree murder charges on kid. There needs to be an proper investigation because if there is witnesses to the parents who abused that child and the had to kill the parents. That is self defense because these parents are satan and deserved what they got. Therefore the child might need some help, but sometimes the child did the right thing.

  5. well it depends on the case before even placing first degree murder charges on kid. There needs to be an proper investigation because if there is witnesses to the parents who abused that child and the had to kill the parents. That is self defense because these parents are satan and deserved what they got. Therefore the child might need some help, but sometimes the child did the right thing.