Kids Who Kill

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

After a child commits murder we typically see news stories portraying these kids as normal one day and crazy the next. This sells papers, raises your tension level and keeps you watching. The reality is far more disturbing.  Usually the child demonstrates years of disturbing conduct before he or she commits murder. Teachers, friends, parents and relatives all avoid doing anything constructive about disturbing thinking and behavior until it’s too late. Children who kill most frequently come from severe neglect and abuse. Many see killing as a way to get control and power over others. Some possess a primitive hunger to simply be seen, recognized or noticed.

Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence says there are seven key abilities which are the most important for humans to acquire: The ability to motivate ourselves, to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, to hope, to empathize, and to control impulse. Children and adults who commit cold blooded murder often lack all of these characteristics. Obviously, a lack of motivation, hope, impulse control, etc., shows up in a child’s behavior long before a gun is used.

I once treated a victim of child abuse who told me a poignant story. One time at a restaurant with her parents, aunts, and grandparents, while listening to the usual barrage of verbal abuse from the family “you stupid, ugly, worthless, useless, good-for-nothing…” she noticed a kind looking woman at the next table who looked at her and smiled. The little girl felt embarrassed that this woman could obviously hear all of the hateful words coming from her relatives. Yet, strangely, even though her parents were talking about how terrible she was, this kind woman continued to smile at her. What happened next gave her the most incredible feeling of joy and relief. This kind stranger, as she was leaving the restaurant, approached the little girl at her table. She wore the same relaxed smile, which meant so much to the little girl. The woman lowered herself to eye level with the little girl and said “you are the most polite, well-behaved, beautiful little girl I have ever seen. Your good manners should make your parents very proud. You should be very proud of yourself to.” Then this woman shook the little girl’s hand, smiled at her chagrined family and left. The little girl was seven years old when this happened. When I saw her she was 23 and that one event changed her life. She realized with the help of this kind stranger, that she had worth, and that there was something very wrong with her family. This kind woman gave her hope. Our rudeness and hostility can be a trigger for someone walking on the edge between sanity and madness. In contrast, our kindness, attention and positive action can save lives. Let’s pay attention to the children around us. We can and do make a difference.