A Mini-Interview With Dr. Helen Smith On Why Kids Kill

Dr. Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist who has written “Scarred Hearts: Understanding and Identifying Kids who kill.” She’s also behind the documentary, “Six,” which is about a group of 6 cult inspired teenagers who murdered a family of Jehovahs Witnesses. You can read about her work in this area at Violent Kids and additionally, you can read her political commentary at Dr. Helen. The mini-interview, which was conducted via email, follows:

Do you think violent images on TV or violent video games play a significant role in encouraging kids to kill?

Youth violence is a very complex construct and experts and others tend to want to blame one thing, a video game, the Internet, or TV as the “cause” of why kids kill. This simplistic “one solution fits all” approach is easy, just get rid of X and kids will stop being violent. But it is simply not true. There have been recent studies indicating that violent video games desensitize children to violence and in some sense, this may be true — but does the violence in the games actually cause kids to commit crimes? Doom and Quake, the two most popular of the first-person shooter games came out in 1992 and the peak of the shooter-games played by teens was from around 1992-1995, a time when violent crime actually decreased. So, a direct cause and effect between video games and future murder is difficult to establish. A good book on this topic for further study is that of “Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, SuperHeroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones.”

I will add that I do believe that the copycat cases that we see splashed all over TV can cause a person who is already mentally disturbed and thinking about violence to get ideas and to decide to go through with a similar crime, particularly if the first killer’s life and thoughts are repeated over and over. Kids who kill, especially in school settings, are generally lonely, desperate, and feel no one gives a damn. The celebrity-like coverage gives them the feeling that they too, could go from being a nobody to being someone who makes headlines and deals with high profile adults such as lawyers, judges and others who will take an interest in their lives. For this reason, it is imperative that the media downplays these killings or focuses on the victims rather than the perpetrators. This, however, is rarely done, and now we have people in society writing to mass murderers as if they are rock stars.

There’s a perception that if you see a kid who goes bad, 9 times out of 10, a bad family life is at the root of it. Do you agree with that?

People would like to believe that when a kid “goes bad,” it is the parent’s fault, but how many of us know parents who seem to be decent people who are trying their best, only to have a kid who is a juvenile delinquent? In my book, “The Scarred Heart”, I have a section on parents who “love too much” and those who “love too little.” Parents who love too much often shelter their kids and shield them from the consequences of their own behavior. Little Johnny or Susan is allowed to wreck havoc at home or elsewhere and nothing bad ever happens lest it ruin their self-esteem. Unfortunately, the self-esteem craze of the 70’s and 80’s and beyond has led kids to believe they can get away with anything as long as they feel good about themselves. Parents are no longer allowed to discipline except with a time-out which often does not work and those kids who are narcissistic and become angry when others judge them resort to violence because they have never been taught that there are consequences to their behavior. On the other hand, anger is not tolerated very well in our society, especially from boys and people are afraid to address anger directly and really find out what is going on with a child. When anger is not addressed and kids are fed a steady diet that they can do no wrong, those who are emotionally disturbed or conduct disordered can go to extremes.

Of course, there are parents who do not supervise their kids, have inconsistent or severe discipline, and don’t notice if their kids turn to gangs, drugs and crime. This juvenile delinquent type typically is not a school shooter, they don’t care enough about school to resort to violence there, but are more involved in typical street crime that may end in a violent encounter.

If you have a kid and you’re wondering: Is he or she a real threat to other people — what should you look out for? What are the danger signs?

The first question you might want to ask is, “is my child a threat to him or herself?” There is a fine line between homicide and suicide and for many kids, it is at the point they decide to take their own life that they decide to take others with them. Adolescents with a history of suicide attempts or self-harm may be at a higher risk for violence.

The school shooters that we see typically have a combination of a mental illness such as depression, distorted thinking, and narcissistic traits that lead a kid to feel there is no other way out except to act out violently. Murder by juveniles is fairly rare, however–so rather than believe your child is the next school shooter, the warning signs should be seen more as a cry for help.

Warning signs include not paying attention to the rights of others, mistreating people, feeling that life has treated him or her unfairly, doing poorly in school and often skipping classes, getting suspended from school, getting involved with the juvenile authorities. These are signs to parents that perhaps help is warranted in the form of getting the child to a mental health professional who can evaluate and treat the symptoms of mental illness, or help parents with a treatment plan in the home to reduce the likelihood of violence.

(There’s a perception that serial killers are almost always white males. Is that the case)?

It is a myth that with few exceptions, serial killers are white males. Black serial killers make up about 13% – 16% of all serial killers which is slightly higher than the 12% of blacks in the population. Remember that John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, the DC snipers, were both black. The reason that we don’t realize there are black serial killers is probably because the media does not cover them as often:

“Criminologist Scott Thornsley theorizes that the popular image of a serial killer is Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer, not Wayne Williams, because the entertainment media, when portraying heinous murderers for the mass market, are reluctant to cast minorities in the roles.

“‘When you’re trying to appeal to a largely white audience, you don’t make Hannibal Lecter black,’ said Thornsley, a professor in criminal justice at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania.”

Source: here.

On your page, http://violentkids.com, you note that the number of violent crimes committed by women has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades. Why do you think that is the case?

A generation ago, there were ten boys arrested for every girl for assault, now, according to the Department of Justice, it is about four boys for every girl. In a controversial book, “See Jane Hit: Why Girls are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It,” psychologist James Garbarino says that girls have learned to express themselves physically in sports and other areas and this is to be celebrated. However, at the same time, girls do not understand how to modulate aggression.

I think it’s in part, the whole, “You Go Girl” culture. We tell girls they are entitled to express themselves in every way now, including physically but society never taught girls that there are consequences for their actions. Girls also have role models in movies and TV of the tough girl being the heroine now. Yet, girls are not trained to handle their aggression and they lash out, thinking that because they are girls, they can get away with it. And in part, they do. For example, women get only 6 years in prison for killing a husband whereas men get an average of 16.5 years for killing their wives. This is even when the woman was not provoked in any way and killed for reasons other than because they were battered.

Source: here.

Although obviously, most kids who are born out of wedlock turn out OK, is it fair to say that the rising number of out of wedlock births in the US has helped increase the number of violent crimes committed by juveniles in the US?

In my clinical experience, good fathers are very important to the well-being of their children’s lives and often are the parent who teaches children, especially boys, how to sublimate violence in constructive ways. Fathers used to wrestle with their sons and taught them about the boundaries of violence–such as when to stop playing around to avoid harming others. Physical play such as wrestling with dad is now frowned upon as are many masculine ways of being in the world. As a result, fewer boys understand when to stop when it comes to violence and do not learn how to control their anger. Certainly mothers can also teach some of these skills but I do think that having a male role model is very important to boys. Girls also need their fathers and they tend to feel more secure and less prone to peer pressure with a father in the house.

The internet has really taken off in only the last decade or so. How has that impacted, positively or negatively, kids who might be inclined to kill? Are they being motivated by other cases they read on the net? Are they posting things on websites that give people a head’s up they wouldn’t have otherwise had? How does the internet change things?

In my work, I have actually used the internet to sublimate violence in some kids. One of my clients was bullied and harassed at school and was always lashing out at peers (probably with good reason). Yet, once he found computers and learned that he was good at them, he spent his time online and quit hurting others. He no longer felt the need to prove himself and was looked upon by peers as “special” for his computer literacy. So the internet and computers can be used for good. That said, it does seem that kids who have violent fantasies can find others on the internet who think like them and they may become more nihilistic than they were before, possibly increasing the likelihood that they will act on their negative feelings. Many, many kids, however, especially boys, feel lonely and go online to feel better so in some sense, the internet can be protective for some kids. My advice to parents is to do some supervision of their child’s internet use by checking the sites their kid goes to. If you see that your kid has been posting disturbing information online, take that as a sign that they may be having some emotional difficulties you may need to address. Do not become defensive and take away their computer privileges completely. This does not address the underlying reason they may (or may not) be upset or having disturbing thoughts.

I would also recommend that kids get some outdoor time and family time to make sure they know how to interact with real, live human beings. If your child seems lonely and has no friends, find out why without being intrusive–do so while doing an activity such as playing basketball or shopping. Be direct but sincere, “Do you see Bobby anymore?” What happened?” Your child’s answers may tell you what is really going on in his or her life and give you a window into his or her psychological state. If you think your child is depressed, find a good therapist in your area who other parents recommend–ask around at school or work.

If you would like to know more about why kids are violent, you can download my book, “The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids who Kill,” for free at http://www.violentkids.com/ or you can take a look at my documentary, Six, at http://www.sixthemovie.com/ to learn more about one specific case of a group of teens who committed a mass murder.

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