The Case of Serial Killer Dellen Millard
Indulgent parents, narcissistic children, and too much of a good thing.
Posted Jan 14, 2019
At 14, Dellen Millard was famous for being Canada’s youngest pilot. Two decades later, on December 18, 2018, he set another record—he became the first murderer in Ontario, Canada to be sentenced to prison with no chance of parole for 75 years. The aviation heir, once considered one of Canada’s most eligible bachelors, is now officially a serial killer convicted of murdering his father, a lover, and a stranger—all in less than a year. But, unlike the poverty, trauma and abuse that litters the childhoods of so many serial killers, Dellen Millard started out with every advantage.
Dellen was an only child whose parents doted on him. He went to private schools, took swanky vacations, and dabbled with expensive hobbies. But as he grew older, nothing satisfied him. He sought out one thrill after another, from off-road racing to sky-diving to jumping off of roofs at pool parties. After dabbling in a number of legitimate jobs, he found his real passion—theft. The young man with money to burn took delight in planning and executing heists, using his charm and financial resources along the way to collect a group of malleable followers along with his stolen goods. When theft lost its luster, he moved on to murder.
Three Ways to Raise a Narcissist
So how could someone with such promise wind up in prison? Dellen’s life wasn’t completely charmed. His parents divorced when he was eleven. There appeared to be a deep rift between his father and his uncle that never healed. From the perspective of most inmates I see in prison, though, he didn’t have much to complain about.
But he may have had too much of some things. While no child can get too much love, he/she can get too much praise and special treatment. In fact, research suggests that parents who overvalue their children tend to raise youngsters with an overblown sense of their own superiority. They become narcissistic because their parents put them on a pedestal and—because they are repeatedly told they are special or deserve better treatment than others -- they come to believe they should be there.
While we don’t know exactly what perfect storm creates a serial killer, we do know that just as a childhood poverty and abuse can stamp out a child’s innate empathy, there are certain parenting traps that can cultivate a child’s worst qualities. These traps, and the maladaptive messages that accompany them, are seductive; they come disguised as love and kindness. But the damage they can do is ugly:
1: There’s no one as special as you.
Every child is special in his or her own way, and as a parent, it's natural to see our child through the rose-colored glasses of love. Parents who communicate consistent appreciation for the unique person their child is tend to raise a child who feels secure in his or her own worth and who appreciates the worth of other people in his or her life.
On the other hand, nothing good comes out of teaching a child he or she is more special than others. Parents who overvalue their children tend to exaggerate their child’s qualities and indiscriminately lavish their child with praise. Madeline Burns, Dellen Millard's mother, once compared his birth to Mufasa holding up Simba—the new lion king—for the world to admire,
Interestingly, research shows that overvalued children are not smarter or more extraordinary than other children; their parents just believe they are and treat them accordingly. At the least, this sets the child up for future disappointment when they grow up to discover that the rest of the world doesn’t view them or treat them the same way. At the worst, they raise an entitled adult who has little interest in, or empathy for, anyone else.
While I’ve never met Dellen Millard or his mother, her letter in support of her son, after two first degree murder convictions, suggests a parent whose description of her son is more of a fantasy than a reality, especially in contrast to how many others remember him.
2. The rules don't apply to you.
Well-meaning parents can confuse love with leniency, failing to set clear expectations about what is expected of them and protecting them from much-needed consequences for unacceptable behavior. Taken to the extreme, they indulge and/or enable their child when he or she is being selfish, insensitive and/or uncaring. Not only does this deprive a child of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, it can lead a child to grow up without a sense of right or wrong or a sense of remorse when causing someone harm.
There's a lot we don't know about Dellen's childhood. We don’t know what kind of boundaries Dellen’s parents tried to set or what kind of friendships they encouraged. We do know that, as an adult, he collected followers rather than friends. Dellen Millard wasn't interested in equal relationships where he might get honest feedback or a no in response to one of his criminal whims. The people he surrounded himself with were those he could control through charm or money and in which loyalty was the highest value. It was pretty amazing the lengths Millard’s groupies were willing to go to just to get him his thrills.
3. The World Doesn’t Understand You
One of my first jobs after high school was at an after-school day care. One child, in particular, stands out—an 8-year old who I’ll call Jim. Jim absolutely refused to take any responsibility for anything he did wrong. Somebody else must have put Sam’s toy in Jim’s lunchbox. No, he didn’t curse at Mary, she was telling lies about him. Peter hit him first. No matter how many people saw what actually happened, Jim denied it. It was always someone else’s fault, someone else started it, someone else was blaming him for something he didn’t do.
When I met his parents, the reason for this became abundantly clear. They absolutely idolized their child, to the point that they were in complete denial about any possible problem. They wanted a parent-teacher conference before any consequences were given for anything. Which, I quickly realized, meant no consequences whatsoever. During the 2 years I worked there, I witnessed the mom accuse the director of being jealous of her son, both parents accuse another child of “setting Jim up”, and on several occasions, the dad laugh and playfully slap his son on the back when told about his son’s aggressive behavior towards his peers.
Even the most well-adjusted child behaves badly at times. No one wins when parents are in denial of their child’s capacity for misbehavior. It’s our job, as parents, to guide them back onto the right track. When parents make sure that no one ever gives their child a consequence, they are sending the message that the child need not ever consider the effects of their behavior on others. Dellen Millard certainly seemed to have no qualms about killing, whether it was to please a girlfriend, bump off his old man, or just for kicks. And yet, in spite of three murder convictions and an overwhelming amount of evidence, his mother continues to believe her son is being framed.
The Bottom Line
Every parent makes mistakes and there is no childrearing mistake which, on its own, creates a monster. There are, however, parental messages that can confuse even the most naturally empathic child and, in conjunction with other factors, lead to a dangerous adult.