Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The 3 Kinds of Fathers Who Kill Their Own Children

"Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate." —Euripides

Sayan Puangkham/Shutterstock
Source: Sayan Puangkham/Shutterstock

Another day, another slaughter of children. Our thoughts and prayers, etc. The crime that prompted this post is the murder in Texas of an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old, allegedly by their father, whose name my fingers refuse to type. News reports indicate that he has admitted guilt.

No gun was involved in this killing. No, daddy didn’t shoot them. He just slit their throats. The 8-year-old’s last words, if his killer is to be believed, were: "Daddy, I’m sorry.”

Justice in this case may not be a long stint on death row; it may be the fate that awaits child killers at the hands of other inmates.

About a year ago, in the wake of another slaughter, I wrote an article explaining the psychology of a catathymic crisis:

"In a catathymic crisis, the individual nurses grudges and ruminates over grievances to the point that he or she becomes hyper-obsessed and pathologically self-focused. This is most likely when a person is already psychologically disturbed. If he or she doesn't get help and won't let the matter drop, the obsession can build up to a state of rage-fueled cognitive dissonance so profound that the person experiences a dissociative or psychotic state."

While this killer was, in my judgment, likely caught up in a catathymic crisis, I don’t believe he was psychotic. He knew right from wrong, gloating over the deed to the children’s mother in a phone call. “I left you a present,” he reportedly said. No, this was not a spontaneous, uncontrolled outburst done in a deep psychological funk — it was a calculated act of revenge.

By breaking off their relationship, the children’s mother had deprived him of his lover and dethroned him as the head of an intact family. This profoundly undermined his fragile ego and destroyed his sense of manhood. In Humpty Dumpty terms, he couldn’t put his mental equilibrium back together again.

Devoid of empathy and pathologically self-obsessed, he allegedly blamed the mother for fueling his revenge. The only victim that matters is him. Sure, two children are dead, but just look at how cruel this woman has been. From his perspective, the blood is on her hands. He’s just a poor, forlorn guy, who, in Othello’s words, “loved not wisely but too well.”

No one else, especially those in the criminal justice system, is likely to view these circumstances quite that way.

Lillian De Bortoli, a researcher at Swimburne University in Australia, has identified three types of fathers who murder their children:

  • De Facto Male: This type of child killer is a live-in boyfriend or stepfather. He typically kills only one child and has a history of abusing the child. Murders of this type are usually hands-on and quite violent, with stomping, throwing, beating, strangling, etc., involved.
  • Separated Father: The current case in Texas fits this category. The murdered children are his own flesh and blood. Estranged from the mother, a father in this category generally has a history of abusing her, the children, or both. The abuse may have prompted the separation. Revenge against the mother is the motivation, and the killing often occurs during custody disputes.
  • Coupled Father: A father who kills his children while the family is still intact, he typically has a criminal history. This type is at high risk of being not just a child killer, but a family annihilator. Most of these murders involve multiple victims, and in the case of family annihilators, may include not only the children’s mother, but also members of the extended family and anyone else who happens to be present when the frenzy begins.

In each of these categories, the killer is likely to have underlying mental health issues that make him susceptible to rumination, rage, obsession, and the other toxic moods and emotions that build to a critical mass. That’s no excuse, unless the killer is truly psychotic.

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

More from Dale Hartley MBA, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Dale Hartley MBA, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today