The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Cat Fights

Why they sometimes lead to murder.

In January 2014, a 14-year-old girl killed her 11-year-old half-sister by stabbing her more than 30 times. After initially blaming the homicide on a Hispanic male intruder, she confessed when confronted with evidence that contradicted her story. The motive? Rage over her sister’s “lack of gratitude” for all the cooked meals, housekeeping, and other domestic chores she did when their mother was not home.  

Less Violent - But Volatile

Girls rarely kill each other. It’s true that girl-on-girl assault has risen over the past ten years; however, homicide among females remains the rarest of crimes. Of the almost 7,000 homicides reported in the U.S. in 2008, less than 3 percent involved women killing women. 

However, just because teen girls aren't usually dangerous as their male peers doesn't mean they can't be. Interpersonal conflict is the most common theme in homicides committed by both males and females; nearly half of all homicides are preceded by some sort of argument or a fight over infidelity, money, property, or a previous insult or dispute. However, what the actual fight is about often differs by gender. When females hurt each other, it’s almost always about preserving either their reputation or a relationship.

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Don’t “Dis” Me

Girls tend to hurt people they know. Unless they’re targeting a romantic rival, girls are most likely to become violent toward family, a neighbor, friend or acquaintance. And the origin of the conflict is likely to be a perceived insult or injury to the perpetrator’s reputation. Another girl gossiped about her, talked trash about how she looked, insulted her mother. In 2012, a 16-year-old girl was beaten to death when she teased a peer about her flatulence. For girls, murder is personal and the motive to set things right an attempt to establish or regain respect.

The Lethal Love Triangle

Consider the intensity of first love.  In a time of hormonal upheaval and shifting identities, most adolescents crave approval, belonging, and a sense of control over their lives. How those needs get met in, and out of a relationship, can set the stage for drama that can lead to homicide. Take the vulnerable girl who, perhaps for the first time in her life, has a boyfriend who makes her feel special. At first, the world is perfect; never has she felt so loved, so understood, so appreciated.

But it turns out she was seeing only part of the picture. Her new love, she discovers, has a jealous streak. He wants to know where she is all the time. He doesn’t want her to wear clothes that could “tempt” other guys. He doesn’t like a lot of her friends. Slowly, her life becomes narrower and increasingly focused on the love of her life.

He, on the other hand, keeps his share of secrets; he isn’t always available but refuses to tell her where he is or what he’s doing.  Any attempt to establish a quid pro quo relationship leads to drama and accusations; you don’t trust him; you don’t really love him; you’re paranoid. Sooner or later, she finds out there’s another girl in the picture and, of course, he puts the blame on her.  She won’t leave him alone; he feels sorry for her; he doesn’t love her; she’s talking bad about you.

When one girl kills another over a boy, it’s either to prevent a romance from occurring or to hold on to an existing one. Somehow, someway, she’s come to believe that the problem is the other woman; if she can just get rid of her, everything will be fine. The other girl, of course, may have been told the exact things about her rival, setting the stage for a confrontation between two girls who are being manipulated. The boy, who may be acting out of a misguided idea of what it means to be a player or because of a darker motive, can just sit back and watch.

Trash Talk 24/7

To add fuel to the fire, technology has ramped up the intensity with which children deal with disagreements. An argument at school on Friday once settled by a night or weekend to cool down becomes a feud that is played out again and again in the open. Students can say anything without having to face the person you’re insulting. Students can use social media and text messaging to continue their dispute 24 hours a day. As the conflict escalates, the girl feels compelled to strike back; as a result, conflicts escalate to the point where they get out of hand.

The Bottom Line

Teenage girls are much less likely to kill than male adolescents. However, given the right circumstances, they can be just as deadly. Teen girls are most likely to become violent in order to protect a relationship or their reputation. A love triangle can turn into a deadly property dispute as each girl tries to “own” her man. Trash talk can become lethal, especially when it results in public humiliation and the victim feels backed into a corner. The bottom line; while girl-on-girl homicide is rare, we all need to pay attention to ongoing and escalating feuds between girls, especially when they become public and involve love triangles or personal humiliation.

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

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