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Kid Killers

What can we learn from children who commit murder?

Just about everyone has heard about the Slender Man case. In 2014, two 12-year old girls lured a classmate into a secluded wooded area near their Wisconsin homes, where they stabbed her 19 times and left her for dead. The attempted murder was clearly premeditated and, as the case unfolded, appeared to be triggered by a shared delusion that sacrificing their classmate was necessary to please Slender Man, a fictional supernatural character and internet legend who reportedly abducted and murdered children. Killing a classmate, these two girls came to believe, would serve two purposes; it would protect their families from Slender Man and allow them to become his servants.

Understandably, when this case broke, there was questions about the role of social media in adversely influencing the minds of budding teens. Did these two social misfits gradually substitute their bland and mundane reality for the vivid fantasy of the virtual world? Was there a point in which their engagement in social media was so excessive that it overshadowed their ability to put what they were seeing into perspective?

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

Subsequent psychological evaluations suggested the answer was much more complicated. Forensic evaluators found both girls were mentally ill; one of the girls, Morgan Geyser, was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after her arrest. The other, Anissa Weir, had apparently developed a shared delusional disorder in which she took on the psychotic symptoms of her friend; her mental health symptoms significantly approved after the two were separated.

In fact, two facts quickly became apparent. First, the girls developed a disorder that appeared long before the internet. Shared delusional disorder is a rare disorder that tends to occur between two people where the dominant person has a serious mental illness, the other one is passive, and the two have extremely close emotional bonds but otherwise are socially isolated.

Second, Anissa and Morgan were not like most other kids under the age of 14 who kill.

How Common Are Young Murderers?

It is rare for a child under the age of 14 to kill someone; approximately 74 children a year do so in the United States. This is less than 1% of all homicide perpetrators. The vast majority (90%) are boys between the ages of 11 and 14 and, about 75% of the time, they kill someone older. Guns are most often the weapon of choice—60% of the time.

When researchers looked at 146 murders by kids under 14 between 2005 and 2012, most child murder cases fell into one of five categories:

  • An older sibling beats to death a child between the age of 0-2 while he is taking care of him or her.
  • A child kills a relative, usually a parent or grandparent.
  • A child grabs a gun and kills a peer during a moment of anger.
  • A young teen or group of teens shoots an adult stranger during a robbery or break-in.
  • A group of teens attacks a lone victim or group of victims as part of an ongoing conflict. This is most often associated with gang rivalries.

These statistics highlight many unique aspects of the Slender Man case. The fact that this attack was carried out by two girls is exceedingly rare, as was their chosen victim. Also, contrary to the Slender Man case, most murders by young children aren’t planned; instead, they are born out of anger, frustration, or interpersonal conflict. What child murders do illustrate, however, is how important, and difficult, it is for adults to differentiate between an acceptable level of responsibility and too much, between normal fantasy and unhealthy obsession, and between healthy peer relationships versus destructive ones.

The Bottom Line

When a child kills, everyone suffers. The often-beloved victim is lost and the perpetrator may spend his or her entire life in prison. This double tragedy provides us with strong motivation to do what we can to prevent these murders from occurring. Recent child homicide perpetrator statistics suggests there are things we can do to decrease the odds; for example, by thinking twice before making a child under the age of 15 a regular caretaker of a sibling under the age of two and restricting our children’s access to firearms. Young teenagers often don’t have as much ability to control their actions in the heat of the moment; what might be a fistfight can wind up a fatality if s/he can grab a gun.

It takes a resourceful village to raise a well-adjusted child and some communities are struggling just to survive. It also takes a healthy mind to resist unhealthy influences. As parents, we won’t always know what our child is thinking and feeling. But we can take our child’s mental health just as seriously as his/her physical health, pay attention to sudden changes in our child’s behavior, stay up to date on the normal range of teen behavior, and use teachers and pediatricians as sounding boards and secondary sources of information. And, of course, keep our fingers crossed.

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.
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