Here are a few of the recent headlines about teens and murder in the home:
Florida Teen Stole Money from Parents, used it to Try to Hire Their Killer. September 11, 2019
Princeton Grad Allegedly Killed Father Over Allowance, Prosecutors Say. June 27, 2019
Son of Ex-NFL Player Accused of Murdering Parents Arrested. August 24, 2019
The above cases are both rare and tragic. But they aren’t unheard of; Adam Lanza killed his mother before going to Sandy Hook and killing innocent children. Expelled student Kip Kinkell murdered both of his parents before engaging in a high school shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. And then there are the teen mass shooters who just annihilate their families – the Alabama 14-year-old who, on Labor Day, killed his entire family, including a 6-month old sibling.
No parent wants to believe their child can do such things. But some do.
The Statistics Behind the Sorrow
On average, about 5 parents a week are killed by their biological children. Putting this in perspective, the killing of a mother or father each makes up about 1 percent of all murders in the U.S. in which the relationship between the offender and the perpetrator is known.
This is not a twenty-first century phenomenon; one of the first double murders of parents by their child in the U. S. involved 11-year-old Iowan Wesley Elkins. At 2 AM on July 17, 1889, he got out of bed, walked down the road to make sure the coast was clear, returned home and used a heavy piece of wood and a rifle to shoot his father while he was asleep and beat his stepmother to death when she woke up. The motive for his murder has been lost to history.
Interestingly, the majority of children who kill their parents wait until they are adults to do so. At all ages, fathers are more likely to be killed than mothers. Eighty-four offenders who killed their mother are over the legal voting age; juveniles (17 and under) made up just 16 percent of this rare group. Teenagers are more likely to use accomplices (siblings or friends) than adults although teenage boys and girls most often act alone.
Motives for Murder: It’s Not Just About Abuse
It is not possible to predict that a youth will kill his or her parent; our goal to prevention. However, research has indicated certain factors that increase the likelihood of a youth killing a parent. Common wisdom says that childhood abuse is the major factor in determining whether or not a teenager will become homicidal. In reality, as seen by our headlines, the truth is much more complicated.
Research, in fact, suggests three types of parricide offenders; the severely abused child, dangerously antisocial child, and severely mentally ill. Adolescents who are most likely to fall into the dangerously antisocial (for example, a history of criminal behavior, impaired empathy, overindulged by parents, etc.) kill because their needs or desires are being unmet or blocked in some way.
This may be as obvious as a case like the 15-year old who pumped his mother, brother, and two younger sisters with bullets and texted a picture of his lifeless mother to his 12 year old girlfriend or the Khachaturyan sisters from Russia who finally put an end to their father’s well-documented physical and psychological abuse. Adults, on the other hand, are rarely abused. Instead, they are more likely to be psychopathic or severely mentally ill.
What Should be Done?
One of the most under-reported forms of domestic abuse is that of teen or young adult children against their parents. Very few parents are wiling to talk about – let alone call the police or social services – when their teenager hits them, punches walls, or threatens them with violence. The reasons for this are many; some are afraid of the legal consequences for their child (”I don’t want him to go to jail”), they blame themselves and are ashamed at their lack of control over their child (“what would my neighbors think if they knew what my child was doing?), or they not even recognize this as abuse (“all teenagers go through rough stages; this is just a hard time for our family.)” Yet suffering in silence leads to misery at best and, at worst, can pose a risk for the family and the entire community.
There is no easy solution but there are things we can do. We can speak up if we do see a child that is truly being abused. We can encourage well-meaning but struggling parents to get the support they need, talk openly about our own parenting foibles, and focus on solutions rather than blame; there are plenty of things that my kids have done – bad and good – that I can take no credit for whatsoever.
We can also help our own kids develop the skills to cope effectively with their feelings, encourage them to be kind and empathic, and teach them that violence – towards themselves or others – never takes away pain. It just passes it on to someone else.