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5 Reasons Why Kids Kill Kids

Kids may be influenced by cultural forces depicting murder as a means to an end.

Key points

  • Kids who murder their peers tend to express poorly reasoned motivations.
  • Some kids who kill may be vulnerable to social forces that present murder as a potent experience.
  • Kids who kill often believe the violent assault will enhance their lives.
K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Recently, some cases popped into the news involving adolescents who purposely killed someone their age for trivial reasons. With all the glamour attached to killers in the media, we shouldn’t be surprised that some kids regard murder as a viable route to a goal. (These acts are different from those that school shooters perpetrate.) Below are reasons I’ve seen for murder plans that kids have made for personal gain.

1. Payback/Revenge

In Florida this past October, a boy, 17, and two girls, 17 and 16, were charged with first-degree murder. They'd fatally attacked Dwight Grant, 18. Surveillance video showed the two older kids assaulting him with a knife and a sword. The other girl had lured him into a trap with the promise of sex. Apparently, the girls were helping the male to punish Grant over his involvement with the boy’s ex-girlfriend.

2. Prowess in Malice

In Brazil in August, Raissa Nunes Borges wanted to know if she was capable of becoming a psychopath. She seemed to equate this disorder with being a killer. Her “test” was to kill someone. She selected her friend Ariane Barbara Laureano de Oliveira, because the 18-year-old was petite and could be easily subdued. With two male friends, Borges planned the act: They would play a specific murder-themed song. Then one of the males would snap his fingers to launch the attack. Borges invited Ariane to meet them for an outing. She accepted. Her body was found seven days later, strangled and stabbed. Borges apparently had failed to strangle the girl, who'd put up a fight, but another member of this gang had stabbed her.

Since the 1990s, we’ve amassed a lot of information about children at risk for developing into adult psychopaths. Among the traits of concern are chronic deception, callousness, cruelty, manipulativeness, grandiosity, and impulsivity. With more media attention to psychopaths that makes them seem clever and even heroic, we see more kids like Borges aspiring to be one. In Britain in 2016, a 14-year-old girl made a list of people to kill. She’d lured a friend to a secluded spot and stabbed her. The friend escaped. People who knew this girl reported her obsession with Ted Bundy. Among her Google searches prior to the attack were “How to feel no guilt,” “How far in is the heart?” and “How to kill quickly with a knife.”

Professor Essi Viding’s group carried out twin studies that suggest there’s a strong genetic component to traits she labels as callous-unemotional—the core of psychopathy. “In the same way that some of us are more susceptible to heart disease,” Viding states, “these children are … more vulnerable to environmental influences that trigger the anti-social outcome."

3. Personal Dislike/Disposal

When Skylar Neese, 16, went missing from West Virginia in July 2012, a surveillance video showed her entering a silver sedan. Police learned that two of her closest friends, Shelia Eddy and Rachael Shoaf, had admitted to dropping her off just before she disappeared. One had driven a silver car. Detectives used their discovery of the surveillance footage to pressure the girls. Shoaf finally admitted they’d taken Skylar to an isolated spot specifically to kill her. The reason: They “didn’t like her” and “didn’t want to be friends anymore.”

4. Greed/Personal Gain

Three boys swung a hammer, hatchet, and rock to kill Jason Sweeney in Pennsylvania in 2003. They wanted the money he’d just been paid at his job. Two of the boys implicated 15-year-old Justina Morley as the mastermind. She’d seductively lured Sweeney to an isolated spot for the attack. She'd also chastised the boys when they initially abandoned the plan. She'd also group-hugged all three over Sweeny’s broken body. Morley’s post-crime correspondence to her cohorts displayed shocking comments. “I’m a cold-hearted, death-worshipping bitch,” she wrote, “who survives by feeding off the weak and lonely. I lure them and then I crush them.” Her motive appears to have been darker than just financial gain.

5. Delusional Emulation

“Ed,” an imaginary friend, allegedly urged 16-year-old Steven Miles to kill. Miles also embraced a fictional hero, “Dexter,” the serial killer/vigilante from the popular cable-television series. The boy fatally stabbed his girlfriend and used his tree-surgeon father’s tools to remove her limbs. He wrapped her parts in cling wrap and placed them in trash bags. Although the court recognized the media influence on the Dexter-like assault, Miles got no pass for diminished capacity.

However, some kids who plan to harm others as they've seen it done in fiction are blind to the line between fiction and reality. If they're lonely, isolated, and angry, they might hone in on the satisfaction some violent characters enjoy from exercising power. Or they might simply adopt a role in the fictional scenario. We saw this in 2015 when 12-year-olds Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier stabbed their friend, Payton Leutner, 19 times to appease the imaginary Slender Man. Geyser was diagnosed a few months later with schizophrenia.

I’ve found multiple examples of each of these five motivations. The immature adolescent brain certainly plays a role in both predatory and impulsive aggression, but it’s also evident that some kids absorb cultural representations that flatten the moral enormity of murder. The desire for power and gain might then easily eclipse awareness of right and wrong.

References

Davis, C. (2003). Children who kill: Profiles of preteen and teenage killers. Allison and Busby.

Hernandez, K. A., Ferguson, S., & Kennedy, T. (2020). A closer look at Juvenile homicide. Springer Nature.

Salekin, R. (2016). Psychopathy in childhood: Why should we care about grandiose-manipulative and daring-impulsive traits? The British Journal of Psychiatry, 209, 189-191.

Viding, E., Blair, R. J., Moffitt, T. E., & Plomin, R. (2005). Evidence for substantial genetic risk for psychopathy in 7-year-olds. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(6), 592-597. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00393.x

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