The Chilling Psychology Behind Child Serial Killers

Data from the F.B.I. and various studies have revealed a general psychological profile for child homicide perpetrators. Approximately 74 children under the age of 14 commit murder a year in the United States, accounting for less than 1% of all homicide perpetrators. About 90% of this demographic are males, usually between the ages of 11 and 14. The majority of the perpetrators took the life of an older individual through gunshot wounds.     

Dr. Alan B Zient and Elyce H. Zenoff of George Washington University School conducted a 1997 study in which they discovered two notable categories among perpetrators under the age of 16. “Nonempathic murderers” consist of children who lack the psychological ability to show empathy or children who display psychopathic tendencies. They often have a history of “assaultive behavior”, developmental disorders, and an inability to cope with stress. These children usually spent the first year of their life without proper parental care or affection, sometimes in a poorly staffed adoption institution. They cited the case of a 15-year-old boy of unenclosed identity who was charged for the deaths of an elderly woman and a 6-year-old girl with seemingly little to no motive. When inquired about the incident, he eerily responded ”I don’t know the girl so why should I have any feelings about what happened to her?” Dr. Zients claims that such murderers are unlikely to benefit from reforms effort, as the root of their psychological problems appears to have deep developmental roots.   

“Sexual-identity” conflict murderers usually consist of males who are taunted for feminine qualities and carry a weapon due to a lack of physical ability. While these perpetrators often commit their crimes during a moment of passion, some appear to have been motivated either directly or subliminally by a parent. This situation is perfectly illustrated by the case of 13-year-old Ronald who was told by his parents that he must do whatever is necessary to defend himself. When an older boy tackled Ronald during a game of sandlot football, he ran to his father’s grocery store to grab a meat cleaver and returned to stab the other boy in the chest, while his father watched from the sidelines. Psychotherapy, Dr. Zients insisted, may be beneficial to such perpetrators, as they will be unlikely to kill again.     

Child homicide perpetrators often have a biological predisposition to violent tendencies. Sarnoff A. Mednick of the University of Southern California believes that although “social and family factors are probably more significant than any other causes” of the development of hostile tendencies, he acknowledges the existence of biological factors. He found that a slow autonomic nervous system response appears to be common among child homicide perpetrators. Such individuals often have electroencephalogram abnormalities, or irregularities in brain function, specifically in the frontal and temporal brain region, the part of the brain associated with logical thinking and self-control. These flaws in the child’s rationality paired with a lack of anger management abilities would mark the individual predisposed to violent tendencies. He suggests that the erratic nature of their brains in response to frustrations will make them likely to resort to violent means when triggered by a stressor. In a child with normal brain structure, fantasies of criminal activity will be momentary and passing, as the brain will apply rationality and a sense of self-control after it has entertained the thought. However, the brains of children with a biological predisposition will circulate this image of violence in a cyclical mechanism, coaxing the individual to satisfy his fantasies as the brain will send repeated impulses to commit the act.     

Various socio-environmental factors may give rise to the development of child murderers. Infancy, notably the first twelve months, is arguably the most crucial stage for the development of basic human emotions and brain function. An infant who doesn’t receive adequate attention and physical touch during this time period are significantly more susceptible to developing personality disorders in the future. As a result, a common characteristic of serial killers is that they are often adopted, as in the cases of David Berkowitz, Joel Rifkin, and Kenneth Bianchi.     

Children who feel isolated by society may develop deviant behavior as the child slowly develop a deeprooted hatred for other members of the community and create fantasies that will enable them to exert their dominance. Many child homicide perpetrators report feeling isolated from their peers, generally due to issues regarding their weight, appearance, or learning disabilities. Children who lack the psychological or physical capacity to effectively communicate with others may experience a growing sense of loneliness. This isolation leads to an increased dependency on their imagination for entertainment that may turn increasingly violent with time.     

Children exposed to traumas within their families are more likely to exhibit criminal tendencies. Significant studies suggest that mental and physical trauma experienced as a child have long-lasting effects on individuals in the future. This is demonstrated by the statistics that 42% of convicted serial killers suffer from physical abuse and 74% suffered from psychological abuse as children. The presence of sexual abuse in childhood is also linked with the development of homicidal tendencies in children, as approximately 35% of child murderers witnessed and 43% suffered sexual abuse. Many sociologists believe the development of psychopathic behavior to be the brain’s defense mechanism against these environmental stressors – by eliminating the range of emotions that may cause pain or despair, the abused child will be subject to less mental agony.     

Dorothy Otnow Lewis of New York University and her colleagues conducted a study in 2012 that showed homicidal fathers to be a common trend among violence in children. Witnessing their father’s violent tendencies towards their mother may trigger a genetic predisposition towards homicidal thoughts. Their research found that an alarming percentage of children had psychiatrically hospitalized mothers and violent alcoholic fathers. She also discovered that approximately 83% of homicidal or violent children have been subject to extreme violence, usually from their own parents.

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