The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Matricide by Teen Girls

Bad girl or evil mom?

Few bonds are as resilient as the one between a mother and daughter. So what motive could be strong as to sever it forever? Teen girls tend to murder their mothers for one of two reasons. One, they "snap" after a mother's extensive abuse. Two, they have become the abusers themselves.  

I Can't Take it Any More

Given the turmoil that can erupt between mothers and daughters during adolescence, it's surprising how rarely teen girls murder their moms. In fact, fifteen percent of the less than two percent of parricides in the United States are daughters who kill their mothers.  The majority of women who murder their mothers are adults; less than 20 percent are under 18 (although, interestingly, more than 50% of the matricides reported in the media involve teenage murderers). Those who do are typically between 14 and 17 and almost half have an accomplice, usually a boyfriend or friend, who sees him or herself as a rescuer.

The most common reason adolescent girls murder their moms is to stop abuse. Take the case of a 15-year-old girl and her 16-year-old boyfriend, recently arrested for the murder of the girl's mother and stepfather amidst allegations that she had been raped by her mother's husband. Or that of teenager Tess Damm who conspired with her 17-year-old boyfriend to murder her severely alcoholic and neglectful mother after police and social services had been contacted numerous times with no relief.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

You Can't Tell Me What to Do

In January 2010. teenage twin girls Tasmiyah and Jasmiyah Whitehead were arrested and charged for the beating and stabbing to death of their mother, Nikki Whitehead. By all accounts these 16-year-olds, once honor students and Girl Scouts, had become dangerously antisocial prior to the murder. They had previously assaulted their mother, stolen money from relatives, and lived for a year and a half with a great-grandmother who was so afraid that she got a dead-bolt for her bedroom door.

Interestingly, these children also come from dysfunctional families; it's not so much the presence or absence of abuse that separates the two groups, but the motive for the actual murder. This dysfunction can range from extreme overindulgence (when the parent finally does attempt to set limits or boundaries, the teen erupts in deadly rage) to physical or sexual abuse (the adolescent internalizes the abusive aspects of the parents and turns the tables).

Abuse:  A Cause or a Backdrop?

Family dysfunction exists in virtually every household where a teen girl kills her mom. Of course, there are a lot more problem-filled households than murderous teens, raising the question of what separates those few where a parent ends up dead than the rest. Are these homes more dysfunctional? Are these girls more antisocial?

The answer to both of these questions appears to be yes.  Abused girls who snap and kill tend to come from homes where family violence, substance abuse, and multiple forms of abuse and neglect are present. Single parent homes are vulnerable; even if there is a non-abusive parent, s/he the other parent does not protect. It is also common, although not inevitable, that a teen kills a parent only after unsuccessfully trying to get help from other people.

While severely abused girls who kill rarely show an escalating history of violence towards their mothers, abusive girls do. These girls often have a history of behavior (lying, stealing, truancy) that routinely places them in conflict with parents. This is often, in part, due to inadequate and/or absent limit setting by parents combined with a history of failed and rebuked efforts at discipline by children. In these cases, the cycle of family violence and conflict often begins with relatively innocuous family discord and increases in frequency and severity as the parent’s inability or unwillingness to impose meaningful discipline undermines informal family controls and acceptable codes of conduct. In addition, these parents often go to great lengths to protect their abusive children from formal legal responses to their abusive behavior by not reporting and thereby keeping their abuse hidden—sometimes until it's too late.

The Bottom Line

It's rare for a teenager to kill a parent and even rarer for a teen girl to do so. Interestingly, the top two reasons she does are mirror images of each other; one, to end a parent's severe abuse or two, or as an escalation of child-precipitated violence towards a parent.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Equation

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.