COLUMN: What lies behind behaviour of children who murder?

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This month marks 25 years since the death of James Bulger in 1993.

That murder was carried out by two boys, formerly known as Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were aged 10 at the time.

The murder shocked the nation and has divided opinion ever since about whether the boys knew right from wrong and should they have been tried in an adult court.

An important question is about what lies behind such shocking and callous behaviour?

Child psychologists, psychiatrists and criminologists have pondered this question for years.

Are people born evil?

What is it that turns one child into a killer and not another?

Unfortunately, there is no, single answer to these questions.

Children who murder have often been severely abused or neglected themselves and have experienced a chaotic home life.

There may also be what we call attachment problems, which can often be the result of unreliable and inconsistent, dangerous care giving.

This may lead to a child developing very aggressive behaviours.

They show little empathy for others, or remorse for things they may have done.

Controlling emotions may also be something they struggle with and this in turn can lead to impulsive and violent outbursts, which may be directed at other people.

Researchers who have studied child murderers, mainly in the USA, have also discovered that there may well be a parent or family member with a criminal history themselves.

There are then things that have happened in the parents past, termed unresolved trauma and loss, which often mean they cannot function effectively as parents.

They themselves may have been abandoned, abused or rejected by a parent.

What a child understands about right and wrong at the time of the murder is also seen to be very important.

Children may know certain behaviours are ‘wrong’, but only as a result of what adults have taught them, and not because they fully understand the moral argument behind it. 

The finality of death, which is abstract, is something many young children do not understand.

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