What Happens When Kids Kill?
Murder by children is rare, but it can happen. Some kids absorb cultural representations that flatten the moral enormity of murder.
They can hone in on the satisfaction violent characters get from exerting power, and lose sight of right and wrong. They can also be provoked by internal demons.
1. A child is abused.
Abuse generates pain, fear and anger that victims often expend a great deal of energy trying to contain. Those feelings become unbearable when they are not resolved, and sometimes the result is violence or even death.
Homicide by children remains rare, and most cases do not end up in the news. But when it does happen, these young murderers tend to have severe mental disorders and a history of family adversities such as domestic violence, school failure, truancy and substance misuse.
The cases also reveal a national crisis in child abuse. Custody and visitation decisions, particularly those made by judges, frequently miss warning signs and place kids in dangerous situations. The solution is simple: Train judges and family court staff to spot danger. This would save lives and help rehabilitate these damaged kids.
2. A child is neglected.
Child neglect is a deadly combination of acts of omission and commission. It can result in death from starvation, exposure to fire, drowning and firearm accidents.
Thousands of children lose their lives each year because parents, family members and caretakers neglect or fail to provide them with basic needs, such as food, shelter, health care and safety. This can be a result of poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, drug abuse and parenting problems.
Kids who kill, even those who are convicted, are seldom prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Prosecutors sometimes withhold details of a case or limit the charges to avoid jeopardizing an investigation. They also receive prison sentences that are shorter than those given to those who kill adults. This is in violation of federal grants requiring states to allow public access to information about child deaths.
3. A child is lonely.
Many children experience loneliness for a variety of reasons. These include conflict in their home; moving to a new school or neighborhood; experiencing the death of a friend, family member or pet; or simply having trouble fitting in and making friends due to personal characteristics.
Loneliness can be especially difficult for kids who have witnessed suicide or homicide. Although they may tell people that they don’t know what happened, it is often believed that children understand fundamentally what occurred and promptly institute defensive adaptive measures to master the experience.
Parents should watch for changes in their child’s social life, such as being less interested in going out with peers or acting clingy and self-conscious around other children. These are signs that a child is lonely and may be in need of some extra attention.
4. A child is frustrated.
During adolescence, kids will often kill when they feel victimized. They may strike out to relieve anger and frustration or as a way to gain power. They can also kill because they don’t understand that life is irrevocable and they are not in control.
A child that plays with weapons or talks about killing himself might be having a hard time communicating with his parents. In addition, some children absorb cultural representations that flatten the moral enormity of murder.
Frustration and anger are normal, but when kids become irrational and act out, it’s important to deliver consistent consequences while teaching them other ways of handling their big emotions. It’s also important to teach emotional words, such as patient, calm, happy and frustrated, so kids can better articulate their feelings.
5. A child is angry.
Children of bereaved parents often lash out in anger and rage. They are looking for a sense of control in a world that feels chaotic and out of control. If you see your child’s anger spiraling out of control, seek help from a counselor.
Kids are often drawn to violent entertainment, such as video games, movies, and television shows. They may hone in on the satisfaction that characters receive from exercising power and may mimic the actions of those characters.
Studies show that children are more likely to introduce aggression into pretend play when they have friends they consider bad-tempered. This can lead to real-life violence if not addressed. Behavioral problems in childhood make it harder for kids to succeed later in life and increase their risk for mental health and physical illness.