Children who kill


By Anne Rushton
on 13 April, 2015

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This is a topic that is difficult to contemplate, but the terrible murder almost exactly a year ago of teacher Ann Maguire in school by one of her students generates an even greater imperative to understand, raise appropriate awareness and to act.

From studies of children who have killed, the reasons why have been analysed but, certainly in the UK, not widely discussed. Probably because of the high profile teen killings over the last few decades in the USA, much of the literature and research is American. However in small numbers, children across the world do kill.

Killings can be broadly grouped in relation to context, cultural influences, method and victims. For example:

  • In school (mass or the targeting of an individual)
  • Under the influence of a cult
  • Within the family (typically the killing of parents)
  • Gang related
  • War related.

The killer may also be recognised as having:

  • A sociopathic personality (that is, they may understand empathy in theory, but do not feel it or show it towards others)
  • A mental health condition such as schizophrenia or psychosis
  • Been traumatised
  • Been abused (particularly in early childhood and by significant people in the child’s life).

The challenge for us all (parents, school staff and peers) is to recognise the warning signs that something is not right and to share concerns. This requires developing an understanding of all children over time, noting personality characteristics and changes in behaviour and checking these out.

In every school there are shy, socially-awkward loners, devoid of a core group of friends. Perhaps with behavioural problems or perhaps not, these children often melt into school surroundings with the apparent aim of being unbothered and invisible. Although often unapparent, some may have emerging mental illness.

While most so-called loners never commit violent acts, it is still imperative that schools make it their business to reach out and support them. Studies show that loners are actually more likely to be bullied than to be bullies themselves and they need support in school so that they don’t become even more isolated and scarred by a hostile school climate.

There may also be psychological consequences of a school’s inaction in the face of a student’s persistent isolation and repeated rejection. Without intervention some of these young people may become even more disillusioned, leading to an increased risk of academic failure. Further, feeling little empathy for others and deep depression or sadness, they are at a much higher risk of harming themselves or others.

There are some very strong warning signs that appear in the available literature. Although many children may possess one or more of these characteristics without becoming killers, they are nonetheless concerning. The most predictive grouping is:

  • A history of cruelty to animals and smaller children
  • A fascination with fire/fire-setting and/or interest in firearms/bombs and/or a sadistic fascination with death
  • Long term enuresis (bedwetting) beyond age 12
  • Uncontrollable temper tantrums, especially at an early age
  • Experience of acute or chronic rejection in the form of ostracism, bullying and/or romantic rejection.

School killings have taken place in areas of the world that we think of as safe, such as Japan. What is different in Japan is that a knife is typically the weapon of choice as opposed to a gun in the USA. However, where they have access, boys generally tend to use a gun more often than girls who, perhaps surprisingly, tend to use knives.

Research on school killers has identified the following:

  • They usually have no secondary criminal motive such as robbery, their primary goal is to kill or harm others and they may be suicidal
  • They tend to kill and injure multiple victims in a single incident. It is less common to just target one person as part of an individual dispute
  • They tend to be younger, most child killers are 15 or over, but school shooters tend to be younger
  • They usually have a history of social problems, they tend to feel rejected and feel others are out to get them (paranoia)
  • They tend to have extreme narcissistic features as opposed to low self-esteem. Narcissists believe others do not have rights and often want to punish or defeat anyone who threatens the perceived favourable image they have of themselves.

In August 2013, HLNTV’s Raising America asked mental health experts for their top three (red light) warning signs of increased risk for extreme behaviour that parents need to look out for in their children. These are also relevant for school staff and other professionals.

One of the experts observed, “Intuition is perhaps the most often ignored indicator of whether a child suffers from mental illness. Parents frequently ignore their intuition, because they don’t want to believe that their child is ‘different’ or struggling with a mental illness”.

Another stated, “Communication is key. It’s up to parents to communicate with their children, to know their children, so that they can recognise when things are off”.

Key warning signs

  1. Keep an eye out for the typical sociopathic trio of prolonged bed wetting (over age 12), a history of fire-setting and torturing animals. The latter two are more worrisome and characteristic of killers than bed wetting.
  2. Look for a history of mental illness, especially if it is untreated, not medicated, and the child is destabilised.
  3. Watch for changes in behaviour, dress, grades, friends and sleep-wake cycles.
  4. Watch for a pattern of violent acts, especially if they escalate from minor to severe over time.
  5. Is the child not able to see things from another’s point of view? Do they lack empathy? Especially troubling when seen together with the next set of signs.
  6. Watch for a history of acting out with mounting anger, increasing isolation, disturbed thoughts and fixations including suicidal ideation.
  7. Note social media outcries or gestures. Does the child’s internet activity suggest he or she is preoccupied with violence?
  8. Do they have an actual plan for the said act? Have they verbalised (on the Internet and/or to peers) thoughts about the violent act? Do they intend to actually carry it out?

Capturing the voice of a potential child killer before the event is a substantial challenge. However, schools can help children generally to notice and be concerned about behaviour amongst their peers (particularly on social media). They also need safe ways of sharing their concerns.

If you discover that a child’s presentation fits aspects of the profiles described above, you should take action, but do not face this alone. Depending on what level of concern you have, liaise with relevant agencies (CAMHS; social care; the police) and use your educational psychologist to support your thinking, planning and subsequent actions such as risk assessments, working with parents, school staff and involved children.

Responsiveness to all children’s mental health and well-being is a societal duty (see Children’s Society: The Good Childhood Report 2014). The National Children’s Bureau newly published (March 2015): Best practice framework to help schools to promote social and emotional well-being and recognise the early onset of mental health issues affecting young people, emphasises the development of a school and classroom climate which builds a sense of connectedness and purpose so that all children can thrive. The findings identify the triggers that can lead to mental health issues such as: lack of trust; communication and relationship breakdowns; and the possible lack of extended family ties.

The framework demonstrates how to engage the whole school community so that pupils feel their voice is heard and parents, carers and families feel they genuinely participate, particularly those of pupils in difficulties who otherwise may feel stigmatised.

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