Children who murder family: Why we shouldn’t see them as monsters
South Africa has an uncomfortable history with children who have killed family members, very often the people who cared for them. Psychologist Melanie Moen has written a book putting together years of academic investigation into children accused of parricide.
“Children who kill” are three words that have a powerful effect on the human imagination and they’ve spawned an entire genre of books and movies about terrible children who do terrible things. From Tom Riddle, who becomes Voldemort, in the Harry Potter series, to the possessed girl in The Exorcist, to Kevin Khatchadourian in Lionel Shriver’s book We need to Talk About Kevin, these minors are inevitably portrayed as uncanny. The common idea of children who kill their caretakers is that they must be evil or in some way intrinsically bad.
I think the idea that children who kill family members are monsters makes people feel safe and secure. It is clear from the studies that these children are not monsters. They come from really difficult home circumstances marred by a combination of negative factors like abuse and extreme parenting styles. The murder that brings them into the headlines is often the very first serious offence they commit.
None of the children who were part of my study was diagnosed with psychopathy or with oppositional defiance disorder. Where we were able to follow up with what had happened to these children, they don’t seem to commit offences later in life either, usually because the stressor – in other words the murdered caregiver – has been eliminated from their life and they are able to carry on again. So these children are not considered your usual juvenile delinquent, but it’s a difficult task to try and convince people of this.
I think it might be helpful for us to know exactly what the definition of “children” was for your study, and also what the definition of “family” was.
According to the Child Justice Act, a child is any person under the age of 18. The National Youth Development Act, however, has it that a young person is someone between the ages of 14 and 35. The Correctional Act takes the stance that if a person under the age of 35 is sent to prison, they’re still young enough to change their life.
I also looked at the biological definitions of a child. Many people agree that the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, develops into the mid-20s and some even say into your early 30s.
We also see that children tend to stay with parents much longer these days for economic reasons, so people remain in the parent-child relationship for longer than they did, say, 30 years ago.
In this study we defined a child as someone under the age of 25 years.
When we look at the idea of family, South Africa is a complex place to do research in because of our multicultural nation. The strict definition of parricide is that it is the murder of a parent. For our purposes we included aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, adoptive parents and step-parents. This is the official South African definition, and it’s also used in Asia and America.
You offer up nine case studies, giving outlines of the lives the children had, their various relationships and how each murder took place. The top thing each of the children had in common was that they had a weak or no attachment to their primary caregiver. Could you please explain what attachment means in psychological terms, how it manifests in the early relationship between the baby and its caregiver, and what the manifestation of its failures are in adults?
It was the first thing I noticed during my research, and it was a significant finding.
Attachment usually takes place within the first few months of a child’s life. It has to do with the way a parent responds to a baby’s needs. Generally, a caregiver responds sensitively and appropriately to a baby’s needs and signals, and that is fairly standard across cultures. Having had their needs met and not having been ignored or rejected, allows a child to form a secure attachment to one or two adults. Secure attachment in the early months has a positive effect on a person’s entire life. If there are problems with attachment, it may cause psychological problems later in life.
Having a weak attachment to a primary caregiver doesn’t turn children into killers. In fact, for the cases that you investigated, a constellation of factors leads to the dramatic climax of a murder within the family. Let’s talk about some of the other things that would roughly fall under parenting that put a child at all kinds of risk.
The influence of parenting styles was another significant finding of the study. Ideally, parents make clear boundaries that are consistent and that a child understands, and there is a lot of warmth that goes with that. In this study, children were either exposed to extremely permissive or uninvolved parenting styles, or to extremely authoritarian styles.
Permissive parenting style allows children to do whatever they want, but there’s no warmth or guidance and the child often feels insecure. That parenting style can lead to antisocial behaviour in children and has a clear link to delinquent behaviour later on.
Authoritarian parenting style is characterised by strictness, excessive punishment, low support and low warmth towards the children. This is the parenting style that is most often associated with family murder.
Another noteworthy observation from the study was that parents often played children off against one another. This creates a lot of tension in the home and in the child who is being unfavourably compared. Trying to live up to a picture someone else has of you is impossible.
You start the book with a quote: “With the exception of the police and military, the family is perhaps the most violent social group, and the home the most violent setting in our society. A person is more likely to be hit or killed in his own home, by another family member than anyone else.” Can you talk about your findings on abuse?
Abuse is one of the most signifcant factors in family murder. Being exposed to just one childhood instance of adversity – like abuse or poverty – has an enormous effect on health later in life. One has a greater chance of developing autoimmune disease or depression. One of the children in this book was verbally, physically and sexually abused by his mother. In fact, there was no form of abuse he wasn’t exposed to.
Abuse has been shown to structurally change a person’s brain, cognition and development. It leaves children feeling insecure, depressed and with low self-esteem. This flows to other parts of their lives and their poor interpersonal skills means they struggle to make friends.
We don’t have to wonder about how adversity affects children. We know from the hundreds of thousands of people who have been through various studies over the years that childhood adversity affects people well into adulthood.
Some of the parents in the case studies in your book are truly awful people who do things to their children that by almost any standard could be seen as terrible. Some of them just seem like they are gormless and misguided. And some are clearly suffering from their own serious mental health issues. You speak about the social environment of the family in the book, and I wonder if you can unpack what exactly a dysfunctional family is.
It’s important to note that all families have struggles, all families have conflict with each other, but that doesn’t make every family dysfunctional.
Dysfunctional families have limited respect or empathy for other family members. For instance, in some there is still this belief that “I am the parent and therefore I have more rights than you, as the child”. Parents like this are often pro-physical punishment, which opens the door to other kinds of abuse. In dysfunctional families there is limited support for the child. The child is often exposed to family violence and substance abuse, all of which have negative effects on children.
South Africa is known as a violent society. When it comes to family murders, and in particular children who murder family members, how bad are we?
We do not have specific statistics on children who commit family murder here. It’s very frustrating.
I have followed up this study with other studies and what I can say with a fair degree of certainty is that we are roughly the same as other countries. In other words, 1% to 4% of all murders are family murders. But, if you look at violence, we are way ahead of other countries. Our murder rate is six times that of the global average. There is definitely something we call a culture of violence that we worry about in South Africa. Our history is violent. It is woven into the fabric of our society. Violence is often seen as the only way to resolve conflict.
I did a study in the Cape a few years ago. We asked children to draw what made them sad, and they had to explain the pictures to us. The week before the children had seen someone from their community being shot. In that whole group, only one child drew that incident. Children accept violence as not worth commenting on because it is so pervasive in their homes, schools and communities.
Let’s talk about why our society is so violent. There is the fact that this country was “discovered” and developed and exploited by violent means. A complex system of bureaucratic bullying, oppression and state-sanctioned and perpetrated cruelty kept the majority of the country’s population shackled to indignity and poverty for all of the 20th century. There are also theories around patriarchal societies and cultural support of the oppression and subjugation of women and children. What are your thoughts on multigenerational trauma and poverty and the effect of weak social safety nets on families and on children? There are things beyond people’s control that influence how we live together in small or big groupings, not so?
Epigenetics and intergenerational trauma studies are very revealing. Parents and children in our society have been exposed to a lot of trauma that they couldn’t or can’t help or do anything about, and that trauma is carried from one generation to another. Poverty causes enormous stress in parents and has direct effects on children. There are so many issues that are out of people’s control, but I also believe there is a lot we can do if we want to make changes. I am not one of those people that thinks nothing can ever change, and this is what we have to accept. But we do have to understand where these problems come from before we can do anything about them.
Could you sum up for us, then, what would make a child go over from suffering silently or acting out their suffering in other ways (like drugs, sex, self-harm) to murdering a family member?
It is extremely important that people don’t think I believe that if you have been abused or had a bad parent, you will become a murderer. The children in this study had a number of things that they had to deal with throughout their lives. Children don’t have the option of divorcing abusive parents. They are stuck in their situations, as well as not being cognitively developed enough to make other plans.
The main factors in the lives of children who murdered members of their family is that they had no attachment with the primary caregiver, experienced abuse, and experienced a loss that no one acknowledged or helped them to process. Many of the children in the study had either no relationship to a father figure or a bad one.
In each situation, there was a trigger event that may not seem significant to the casual observer, but which tipped a trapped child in a bad situation over the edge. In the first case in the book, for instance, the trigger was that the child was prevented from going out after having made arrangements to do so. One might wonder why someone would kill their parents over that. It doesn’t make sense. But if you know the background, it starts to make more sense.
To summarise, if your cup is full and you add another drop, the cup will spill over. This is what happened to these children. Their cups were full.
I think that’s what I want people to take away from this: children who kill their families are not monsters. Enough negative factors that build up over years can lead to murder when a situation arises that allows it to.
What are the answers? Where does responsibility ultimately lie for protecting children? And is there any hope that things might get better instead of worse? What’s the way forward?
I think it is all of South Africa’s responsibility to look after children and be aware of their community. I don’t believe that you can see no evil, hear no evil. In many of these cases neighbours knew about the abuse, but they did nothing because they were scared to get involved. Teachers often know something is going on, but don’t know what to do about it.
The police service also needs to take these cases seriously. One case, which was not in the book, involved a boy who was the only one who contributed to the family’s finances. He bought some shoes for his little sister. When he got home, his father hid all the food and told the boy he had wasted money on the shoes. There was a conflict and ultimately the boy murdered his father. He went to prison for 12 years. This child had gone to the police years before, saying he was being abused at home. He asked for help but he was not protected. We must always take these situations seriously.
We must be aware of support structures in our communities. I believe we can make changes by educating families. Most families want the best for their children. If they know what they can do to improve the relationships or improve the child’s self-esteem, I’m sure we will see changes in our communities. DM/MC
Melanie Moen is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. Her research focus is to determine the psychological factors that contribute to violent behaviour by children, and childhood adversity.
Portraits of Pain – Children Who Kill Family Members by Melanie Moen is published by Imbali Academic Publishers.
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