Why Children Kill

By Lowenstein, L. F. | Contemporary Review, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Why Children Kill


Lowenstein, L. F., Contemporary Review


WITH the James Bulger killing, Britain has come to realise that childhood has inherent within it, at least in certain instances great dangers previously not suspected. In the United States, there has already been a wave of killing by children and hence the people there are somewhat innured to this kind of tragic behaviour. Great Britain has yet to come to terms with the fact that children are not as innocent or incapable of violent behaviour as was previously considered. The Bulger killing may merely be seen as the tip of the iceberg. It is almost certain that there are many other children who have not as yet and perhaps may never commit such acts that exist and who may at some later stage, express homicidal behaviour. The question that continues to be asked is, Why?

There are both simple and more complex responses to that question. The simple answers go something like this: (i) such children enjoy the process of hurting and eventually killing another human being, (ii) they believe that they are unlikely to be caught and punished for such behaviour, (iii) lack any empathy or feeling for the pain of other human beings, most especially those who become their victims, and hence they depersonalise such individuals so that they become objects rather than humans.

That is the easy reply albeit one that is likely to shock many people. As one who has worked with such youngsters for over seventeen years as head of a therapeutic community and a consultant clinical educational psychologist, I have studied such young persons with great interest and equally with great sadness. Fortunately, all those who have come to my own centre have never committed a violent crime but one can never be sure this may not happen at some point of time in the future since the after care is frequently lacking when such children leave centres such as mine.

The killers of James Bulger are there mainly because they have not been recognised as such and frequently have not been provided with help at an early time in their lives when it is still possible to turn around such behaviour and direct it towards positive channels. In the United States, juvenile homicide has been increasing and will continue to increase with every year that passes: between 1984 and 1989 the number of youths arrested for murder nationwide in the United States more than doubled from 1,004 to 2,208. One study showed that youths under eighteen years of age now make up about ten per cent of all homicide arrests in the United States.

As already mentioned, although juvenile homicide is relatively rare, the tendency for committing such offences frequently does not appear until much later. The tendency is there and the basis for this tendency is a lack of having developed feelings for other people, likely to become their victims.

Among the studies that I and others have performed, there are certain traits and certain events in the lives of potential juvenile homicides including the following: (i) witnessing violence in reality such as between parents or others, (ii) suffering from either physical or sexual abuse themselves, (iii) being interested excessively in acts of violence such as watching violent TV programmes or videos, (iv) having failed to be disciplined sufficiently when acts of aggressiveness occur towards others, towards animals and hence having failed to develop a conscience about such behaviour, (v) there is also frequently a history of both being bullied and acting as bullies.

These are but some of the observations that can be made in the family, in schools and in the community where such youngsters live. Such children frequently fail to make a connection between what they are thinking of doing and actually doing and the consequences of their actions, mainly because they do not expect to be apprehended and punished. Children who abuse others have frequently seen their own parents act as negative role models: because little feeling is expressed towards themselves, such youngsters frequently fail to experience feelings of guilt towards what they do to others.

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