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Perry, P. (2012). Why Children Kill Their Parents. Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 6(2):vii-viii.

(2012). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 6(2):vii-viii


Why Children Kill Their Parents

Philippa Perry

On Monday 2nd April 2012 the media were allowed to name the teenager Daniel Bartlam, who bludgeoned his mother, Jacqueline, to death with a hammer last year at the age of fourteen years (Jones, 2012). Such acts are assumed to be uncommon but occurrences are more frequent than we might think. In the US where guns are more widely available, a parent is killed by their own child almost every day. (Hillbrand, Alexandre, Young, & Spitz, 1999: In this article it says that parricides account for 2% of homicides in the US which I calculated to be about 200 per annum.)

Research suggests that children who commit this act fall into one of three categories: the severely mentally ill child; the dangerously antisocial child; and—by far the most common, in over 90% of cases according to one study—the severely abused child who is pushed beyond his or her limits (Heide, 1992).

I have heard nothing to suggest that Daniel Bartlam's upbringing was anything other than ordinarily loving. However, having heard many shocking tales of parental abuse, my puzzlement is not so much why children murder their parents, but why more of these murders are not committed.

In my experience abused children feel safer if they believe the reason for the parent's behaviour is not that the parent is bad, but that the children themselves are at fault and the bad things would not keep happening if only they could learn to get their own behaviour right. I would also add that the great majority of parents who abuse were abused themselves and survived by playing that same game. And so abuse and its effects are unwittingly passed down through the generations.

Of course, while many children experience such abuse, only a relatively few escape it via murdering a parent. So what do these more extreme cases have in common? They are usually isolated and have no one willing to listen to them and take them seriously. Without a sympathetic adult witness in their life they feel trapped, as if they have no other choice.

I have been asked how I would treat a child who had committed parricide.

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