Q&A: Why kids kill their parents
Kathleen M. Heide, PhD is professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, Tampa. She has published two widely acclaimed books on juvenile homicide, "Why Kids Kill Parents: Child Abuse and Adolescent Homicide" and "Young Killers: The Challenge of Juvenile Homicide," and a third, coauthored with Linda Merz-Perez, on "Animal Cruelty: Pathway to Violence Against People."
Her latest book, "Understanding Parricide: When Sons and Daughters Kill Parents" will be published by Oxford University Press in November 2012. She is a licensed mental health counselor and a court-appointed expert in matters relating to homicide, and children and families. She is a frequent consultant to the national print and electronic media and numerous international newspapers and magazines.
Parricide: technically refers to the killing of a close relative but has become increasingly synonymous with a child killing his or her parents.
Matricide: term used to refer to the killing of one's mother.
Patricide: term used to refer to the killing of one's father.
How often do children kill parents, particularly mothers, in the United States?
On the average, about five parents are killed by their biological children in the United States every week. Matricide and patricide are both very rare events when considered in terms of the thousands of individuals arrested every year for murder. Killings of mothers and fathers each constitute about 1 percent of all homicides in the United States in which the victim-offender relationship is known.
Over the period of 1976-2007, 113 offenders were arrested on the average each year in connection with the killings of mothers.
What are the characteristics of children who kill their mothers in the U.S.?
The overwhelming majority of offspring arrested for killing mothers from 1976-2007 were adults (age 18 and older.) The percentage of matricide offenders who were adults averaged 84 percent over the 32-year period; juveniles (age 17 and under) made up only 16 percent of matricide offenders over the years.
Interestingly, the percentage involvement of females in arrests for matricide was higher for juveniles than adults. Daughters comprised nearly one out of four (23 percent) juveniles arrested for killing their mothers, compared to about one of six (16 percent) adults arrested for matricide.
Approximately 82 percent of matricide offenders acted alone when they killed their mothers. On the average, in the period I studied, about 10 offenders were arrested each year for acting with codefendants to kill mothers.
Important gender and age difference emerged in examining matricides in which codefendants were involved. Interestingly, 38 percent of the offenders involved in these multiple-offender incidents were females. Juveniles were significantly more likely than adult offenders to use accomplices in killing mothers (22 percent vs. 6 percent). Relative to males arrested for matricide, a significantly higher percentage of both juvenile females (44 percent vs. 16 percent) and adult females (13 percent vs. 5 percent) employed codefendants to kill mothers.
About a dozen offenders each year were arrested for killing mothers and other victims during the same incident. Those arrested in multiple-victim situations were male offenders in nearly 90 percent of the cases.
Analyses of data from 1976-2007 provide no evidence that the incidence of matricide is increasing. Available data suggest, in contrast, that the killings of mothers, as well as fathers, have decreased over the last 30 years.
What prompted your study of parricide?
I began evaluating juvenile killers in the early 1980s. Some of these youths had killed their parents. When I heard the stories and investigated the backgrounds of youths who killed their mothers, fathers, or both parents, it was clear that abuse and neglect typically played a role in these killings. The cases of kids who killed parents were very different from adolescents who killed under other circumstances, such as during the commission of a robbery or a burglary. I found cases of young people killing their parents very disturbing and unsettling.
I decided to write my first book, "Why Kids Kill Parents: Child Abuse and Adolescent Parricide," after receiving a phone call from "a good kid" who killed his mother and father. The record established that both parents were alcoholics and abused him for years. During the phone call, the boy said, "Dr. Heide, someone has to tell the story about kids like me." Three petitions alleging abuse had been filed by the state social services agency in this case prior to the killings. This boy had been removed from the home for a period of time after it was established in court that that the parents had physically abused him. The boy was later returned to live with the parents. Nine months after the social services agency ended its supervision, this boy killed his parents. He was in the process of running away when the deadly confrontation happened. This adolescent was sentenced to life in prison by the same judge who had presided over the child abuse proceedings a few years before the killings.
Your study says that youth parricide can not be predicted - are there no warning signs?
It is not possible to predict that a particular boy or girl will kill a parent. The reason that parricide cannot be predicted is because parricide is such a statistically unusual event. For example, in 2010, law enforcement agencies across the United States reported to the FBI the victim-offender relationship for 12,996 of the14,748 victims classified as murdered during that year. Of these, 107 were mothers and 135 were fathers slain by their biological children. These 242 victims represent about 2 percent of murder victims.
Most of the offspring who killed their parents, as we have seen, were actually adult children, meaning they were over 18 years of age. Over the 32-year period examined, the number of juvenile parricide offenders was substantially lower. On the average, juveniles killed 31 fathers and 18 mothers per year.
In addition to the small number of cases of parricides in relation to all homicides, studies have shown that it is hard to predict violent behavior, unless there is a history of violent behavior by a particular individual.
Although it is not possible to predict that a youth will kill his or her parent, research has indicated there are certain factors, if present, that increase the likelihood of a youth killing a parent. These include:
-The youth is raised in a chemically dependent or other dysfunctional family
-An ongoing pattern of family violence exists in the home
-Conditions in the home worsen, and violence escalates.
-The youth becomes increasingly vulnerable to stressors in the home environment.
-A firearm is readily available in the home environment.
When these conditions are present, parents or other adults need to take action to get help. When I see families in these situations, one of the first things I ask is whether there is a firearm in the home. If so, I advise the parents to remove the gun from the home until conditions improve substantially. My research and studies by others show that in the majority of cases, children and adolescents use guns to kill both fathers and mothers. My analyses of thousands of cases show that youths under 18 are significantly more likely to use firearms to kill their parents than adult offenders.
Is there an age when a child is more likely to kill their parent (juvenile versus adult)? And is there an overwhelming motivation?
There is no specific age. However, age is indeed relevant when looking at likely motivations or factors contributing to the homicide. Motivations for the killing are very important, as they are related to how much risk the parricide offender is to society and what should be done in terms of justice.
Children and adolescents are most likely to kill to end abuse or to get their own way. Sometimes they kill because of severe mental illness. However, severe mental illness is not as much of a factor with young parricide offenders as with older parricide offenders.
Adults who kill their parents, particularly those who are middle-aged, are likely to kill their aging parents because of severe mental illness, such as psychosis or severe depression. They also kill for antisocial reasons, such as to get their parent's assets. Abuse alone is rarely the driving force for an older adult to kill a parent because a healthy adult has options a child under 18 does not have. A healthy adult, for example, can leave the home of the aging parent or cut ties with an abusive parent. When conditions warrant it, such as the deteriorating health of an aging parent, perhaps, complicated with substance abuse, a healthy adult can take action to have the parent hospitalized or put in a nursing facility.
In your book and in your article, "Matricide: A Critique of the Literature," you profile three distinct categories of parricide offenders. Can you detail them for us?
From my review of others' reports and my own clinical evaluations, I have found that most cases can be categorized into three primary types of parricide offenders: the severely abused child, the dangerously antisocial child, and the severely mentally ill child. Among children, adolescents, and young adults, the severely abused child and the dangerously antisocial child are most common. Among older adults, the severely mentally ill and the dangerously antisocial types predominate.
Severely abused children (SAC) kill their abusive parent to end the abuse. These individuals have been abused by their parent(s) for years. The abuse is typically known to others. SAC have sought help from others and, yet, the abuse has continued. They often have tried to run away, considered suicide, and, in some cases, have attempted to kill themselves. Over time, the violence in the home escalates and these individuals become increasingly stressed. They kill the abusive parent because they are terrified that they or other family members will be seriously harmed or killed. They are typically desperate and see no other way out but murder. These individuals typically have a longstanding history of depression and meet the diagnostic criteria for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Dangerously antisocial children (DAC) kill the parent to further their own goals. In these cases, the parent is an obstacle in their path to getting what they want. These individuals, for example, may kill to have more freedom, to continue dating a person to whom the parents object, and to inherit money they believe is eventually coming to them. DAC have a pattern of violating the rights of others when it suits them. Typically this behavioral pattern begins in childhood. Youths who continuously defy adults, do what they want on their own timeframe, and do not accept responsibility for their actions over a significant period of time will likely be diagnosed as having Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If this behavioral pattern is not corrected, the youth often will engage in criminal activities that may include violence towards people or animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and/or serious violations of rules by parents, such as staying out all night or being truant from school. At this point, the youth will likely be diagnosed as having a Conduct Disorder. If this pattern of violating the rights of others continues past age 18, it is likely that this individual may be diagnosed as having an Antisocial Personality Disorder. This type of parricide offender is far more dangerous to society than the first in terms of re-offending and hurting other people in the future.
Severely mentally ill children (SMIC) kill the parent largely as a result of severe mental illness. Diagnoses commonly made include psychosis and severe depression. A longstanding history of mental illness is generally easy to document in these cases. SMIC are typically on psychotropic medication and are most apt to kill when they stop taking it. They may kill the parent, for example, because they have delusions (bizarre and irrational beliefs) that the parent is the devil. They may report hearing God's voice commanding them (an hallucination -- false sensory experience) to kill the parent.
How do you determine the type of parricide offender? Is it as straightforward as it seems?
Determining the type of parricide offender is not as easy as it may seem. An accurate assessment takes time and serious study. The adage "You can't judge a book by its cover" often applies here. For example, in parricide cases involving young offenders, severe mental illness is typically ruled out. In many cases, the question becomes, is the boy or girl a severely abused or dangerously antisocial child? On the one hand, I have had several cases of youths who initially appeared dangerously antisocial, but careful evaluation revealed otherwise. Some youths who have been severely abused may adopt a tough exterior that suggests to others that they may be antisocial when they are not. On the other hand, I have encountered youths where extensive abuse was evident and who were extremely dangerous. Even when abuse is present, the critical question remains: What propelled the youth to kill the parent?
Making this judgment requires an in-depth evaluation by a mental health professional who is knowledgeable about family violence. In my practice, I focus on juveniles, adolescents, and young adults who kill parents. In my cases, I spend hours evaluating the parricide offender and routinely consult with surviving family members. I also speak with the offender's friends and teachers when possible. Family members are essential in corroborating abuse, the early history of the child, and family dynamics. Friends and teachers can provide important information about what the youth is like, how the youth handles stress, and what changes occurred in the youth's behavior over time. I review police reports, depositions of witnesses, school and medical records, and social services records if they exist with respect to dependency and delinquency histories. I routinely consult with other mental health professionals who may have had earlier contact with the child.
Can you talk about the importance of boundary setting and parental respect for children in regards to their parents?
Setting boundaries is very important in raising children. Good parenting requires setting limits and disciplining children when they do not abide by them. From the time they are toddlers, children test limits and challenge parents. For example, a three year old wants an ice cream sandwich right before dinner. The mother says no, explaining that they will be eating dinner soon. The child screams, cries, and kicks his feet in protest. If the mother, exhausted from a long day, gives in, thinking it is not worth the hassle, the child has learned an important lesson. The child can wear his mother out and get what he wants by temper tantrums and bad behavior. Unless the mother changes that behavior, the child will continue to challenge her and his bad behavior will escalate.
In parricide cases, I have seen good parents overindulge their children with fatal results. These parents often love their children very much and do not want to fight with them over "little things." These parents reason that these challenges - staying up late, getting another toy at the store - are not really important. The problem is that over time the "little things" become bigger and bigger issues. At 15, 16, or 17 years of age, the son or daughter is now saying "I am going out, I am taking the car, I am dating who I want." The parent appropriately steps in and says "no." However, the adolescent has not learned to respect the parent and to accept the parent's authority. The youth has not learned that you do not always get your way. The youth has no frustration tolerance, meaning that he does not know how to deal with disappointment, and gets angry. Sometimes the anger is so intense that it erupts into deadly rage.
Is matricide more prevalent in single parent families?
That question is a hard one to answer because there are no national data that record family composition of matricide victims. I have had cases of male and female adolescents who have killed mothers that came from both two parent and one parent families. Case reports from other clinicians and researchers also are mixed with respect to family composition when it comes to adolescents who kill mothers. Clearly more research is needed to better understand this important area.
With respect to adult matricide offenders, the picture is clearer than with younger offenders. Adult sons and daughters who kill their mothers are much more likely to be living alone with them than with both parents.
What conclusions can you draw from children who choose knives over firearms?
Most juveniles and adolescents who kill parents use firearms as their weapons of destruction. In matricide cases, firearms are the weapon of first choice followed by knives and then other weapons, including blunt objects, personal weapons, strangulation, asphyxiation, or other means such as poison, drugs, explosives, pushing their victims out windows or drowning them.
Interestingly, my analyses of over 1400 cases of parents killed by juveniles under 18 over the 32 year period 1976-2007 revealed that the percentages of daughters and sons who used knives to kill mothers was the same - 23 percent. Thus, about one in four juvenile matricide offenders stabbed their mothers to death.
Adolescents who kill parents often act impulsively. Those who select knives are even more likely to act due to strong feelings rather than to conscientiously plan the killing. Knives are readily available in homes. Grabbing a knife and wielding it requires little planning.
What does it mean when a victim is stabbed multiple times?
It is often indicative of the release of very strong negative emotion. Studies in rats have demonstrated that a positive feedback loop exists between the aggression center in the brain and the release of stress hormones by the adrenal cortex. This feedback loop amplifies aggressive behavior. In essence, stress and aggression form a rapid positive feedback loop. When stress increases, aggression increases. Conversely, aggressive behavior leads to the release of stress hormones.
This mechanism may help to explain how stressors rapidly generate and exacerbate violent behavior. I have had several cases where matricide and other homicide offenders stabbed their victims multiple times. Once in this positive feedback loop, the offender continues to act out violently until his or her rage has dissipated. At this point, the offender is completely exhausted. Often offenders in this situation report later that they are stunned by what they did. It is almost as though they were on "automatic pilot" and suddenly woke up to see the violence that they had inflicted. The prosecution may suggest that, in the case of a victim who has been stabbed 30 times, the offender made 30 conscious decisions as he or she inflicted each wound. Advances in biological research suggest quite the opposite. Once the offender began the assault, his or her ability to stop, think, and conscientiously make choices was severely compromised.
It is normal for teens to test boundaries - when are the clues that adolescent behavior has gone from normal to something more dangerous?
It is indeed normal for teens to test boundaries. They are yearning for independence and trying to establish their own identify and move towards adulthood. Parents should be concerned when youths are engaging in behavior that is reckless and unhealthy, such as drinking, taking drugs, participating in unprotected or indiscriminate sex, staying out late, skipping school, or being involved in a gang activity or delinquent acts. Parents also need to be aware of the violent imagery to which their children are exposed and to set limits with respect to excessively graphic and violent videogames, role play games, movies, and music. Parents need to make explicit what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not.
When is it time for parents to seek out professional help?
It is normal for teens to be upset and to sulk when they do not get their own way. However, if the youth withdraws, becomes noncommunicative, or belligerent, it is time to get help. Threats by a youth against a person should always be taken seriously by parents as a call for immediate intervention. Parents should reassure their children that they love them and that they care enough about them to get a third party involved to help the family work through the conflict. Youths will often accept going to a mental health professional if the whole family participates in the therapy. It is important for parents to communicate with their children, to listen, and to be the parents. In some of the parricide cases I have had, parents tried to be their children's friends. Children need their parents to be adults and not try to act as one of their peers. Kids may openly buck the structure. Inwardly, they need, and often crave, stability and reassurance that their parents have the strength to remain in charge.
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