Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Parricide motivation

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Parricide motivation:
What motivates children to kill their parents?

Overview[edit | edit source]

A case that involves the murder of a parent by a child will always be one that turns heads. Ever since the early 1900s, this type of killing has sparked world wide concern. Generally speaking, the word "parricide" is translated into the murder of a close relative (Heide & Petee, 2007). However, with the drastic increase in crimes of this nature, parricide is now used in cases that involve the death of a parent by their child. To be more specific, when the victim is the child's mother it is referred to as matricide and when the victim is the child's father it is categorised as patricide (Marleau, Auclair & Millaud, 2006).

Despite parricide becoming a more frequent crime[factual?], parricide cases from across the world vary. In a comparative study, roughly 14 cases per year were recorded in Australia between 2002-2012. Whereas in the United Kingdom there were only 9 cases of parricide reported between 2002-2012. Interestingly, the United States are said to have the largest amount of parricide cases per year, with an estimated five parents killed by their biological children each week (Heide et al., 2007). This chapter will attempt to uncover the main motives behind parricide. It provides case studies of parricide crimes and outlines psychological theories that can provide a deeper understanding of why offenders commit crimes of such evil nature.

Focus questions:

  • What motivates children to kill their parents?
  • What psychological theories can help us better understand these motives?

What are the motives behind parricide?[edit | edit source]

Due to the heinous nature of parricide it is critical to establish what might motivate a child to murder their parents. [what?] Literature would argue that parricide can be driven by many factors such as neglect, revenge or even individual gain (Ewing, 1997). However, across the literature there is one main theoretical framework used, Heide’s typology of parricide[factual?]. In her book, “The Phenomenon of Parricide” Heide outlines three main types of parricide offenders and the motives behind them 1) The severely abused, 2) The dangerously antisocial 3) The severely mentally ill (Heide, 2012). The following section explains these different types of offenders and outlines the main motives behind parricide.

From their perspective, there is no way out other than murder.

Kathleen M. Heide

The severely abused[edit | edit source]

Physical and emotional abuse is said to be the most prevalent motive behind parricide[factual?]. It is reported that these types of offenders are often victims to psychological abuse by either one or both of their parents[factual?]. Furthermore, they have often witnessed or suffered physical, verbal or sexual abuse[factual?].  These children will often come to perceive that their physical well-being or the well-being of others is under threat[factual?]. According to England (2007), these offenders kill in response to serious terror or desperation. Parricide that is motivated by abuse is closely linked to the concept known as “Battered Child Syndrome” (Van Sambeek, 1989). In 1962 Henry Kempe created the term Battered child syndrome to define the clinical conditions in which parricide offenders received serious psychological, physical and verbal abuse from their parents or caregivers. Despite the logistics[say what?] behind this phenomenon, battered child syndrome is often quite hard for society to take into consideration when parricide has been committed. According to Baldwin (2001) battered child syndrome does provide some insight as to why the crime was committed in the first place. For example, research has outlined that battered child syndrome demonstrates that through repeated forms of abuse the child will often develop a strong sense of hopelessness. Supporting this notion Hart & Helms (2003) suggests that this feeling of hopelessness leads the child to commit murder as they feel it is the only way out.

Case study: Cody Posey

Cody Posey killed his father, Stepmother and sister in July 2004. During trial, Cody’s defence attorney presented evidence that Cody had suffered years of physical and emotional abuse by his father (Edens & Vincent, 2008). Neighbours and family friends testified these allegations and confirmed that Cody’s dad did in fact abuse him. Reports states that his father would often physically abuse him with garden tools such as, shovels and hay hooks. In addition to this physical abuse, it had been outlined that Cody was subject to years of humiliation and isolation (Salekin, 2008). Cody informed the court that he suffered psychological abuse every day. He was forced to work 18-hour days on his family ranch without food, water or rest. He shared that he had been woken up with an electric cattle prod, whipped with a lasso, dragged by a horse and smack[grammar?] with a hay hook (Edens at al., 2008). Despite his father being the main perpetrator, Posey suggested that his stepmother and sister would often participate in the abuse. In an interview with Cody prior to his court hearing he told reporters that his “breaking point” happened the night before the murders occurred.

Cody claims that his father attempted to force Cody to have sex with his stepmother and after denying this twisted request he was punished by being burnt with a welding iron. The next day, Posey said that his father slapped him across the face for missing his alarm (Salekin, 2008). Posey recalls heading outside to grab his sister[grammar?] shotgun, coming inside and shooting each of his family members one at a time. Despite taking into consideration the abuse, after twelve hours of deliberation, the jury found Cody to be guilty of voluntary manslaughter for the murder of his father . Cody, much like other parricide offenders, felt that committing this crime was the only way to stop the abuse (Edens at[spelling?] al., 2008).

The question still stands, is Cody posey a cold-blooded killer, or a victim pushed too far?

The dangerously Anti-social[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Mug shots of Lyle (left) and Erik Menéndez (right

Typically speaking a dangerously anti-social child refers to someone who has conduct disorder (Heide, 1992). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), suggests that conduct disorder is categorised by an individual who is aggressive towards people and animals, they are deceitful and violent towards others and destroy other people’s properties with no remorse (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition to conduct discord these individuals may be diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder which is categorised by persistent antisocial, criminal and aggressive behaviour (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

According to Heide (1992), adolescence[spelling?] with conduct disorder are only capable of the shallowest human emotions. Furthermore, individuals who are dangerously anti-social lack the ability to cope with stressful situations. Therefore, stressors can act as triggers for these parricide offenders. Interestingly, antisocial offenders have been categorised as having the highest statistic for re offending[grammar?][factual?]. According to (Ewing, 1997) this is the case because alongside the antisocial characteristics, these individuals are often motivated to kill for extrinsic gain.  

Financial gain and extrinsic motivation- When an individual is motivated to kill their parents for financial gain it can be defined as having extrinsic motivation. This is where a behaviour is driven by an external rather than an internal reward (Gallo et al.,). Money is arguable one of the most common extrinsic motives for parricide offenders (Ewing, 1997).

Case study: The Menéndez brothers

Perhaps one of the most prolific and infamous parricide cases is that of the Menéndez brothers. On August 20, 1989 Jose and Mary Menéndez were shot to death in their family home. The offenders were their two sons Erik and Lyle Menéndez (Mulveyet al., 2006) During trial the brothers pleaded that their killings were motivated by years of emotional and psychological abuse. However, despite their best efforts the court ruled this to be [missing something?] lie. During psychological evaluation both brothers were classified to have symptoms of conduct disorder (Davis, 2017). Both boys displayed aggressive and hostile attitudes towards others and held very selfish views. In addition to these antisocial behaviours the judge identified that the second motive behind the Menéndez killings was money (Mulveyet al., 2006). Erik and Lyle Menéndez were charged with first degree murder in 1996 see figure 1. Which display the Menéndez brothers mug shots[grammar?].

The severely mentally ill[edit | edit source]

According to the [what?] literature, a substantial amount of parricide offenders suffers[grammar?] from a mental disorder and often these disorders act as motives for killing their parents. Although some might argue that parricide offenders suffer from many psychological disorders such as anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and conduct disorder (Liettu et al., 2008). The two most common disorders that are claimed to motivate parricide are depression and schizophrenia (Liettu et al., 2008). Heide (1993) explains that these mental health disorders are a leading motive amongst parricide offenders as they are known to cause an individual to lose sense of reality. People who suffer from depression or schizophrenia will often commit parricide when in a delirious state of mind[factual?].


These adolescents do not typically understand that they are suffering from a mental disorder and are mindlessly led into their killings (Heide, 1993).Evidently male parricide offenders more frequently commit parricide due to mental health problems (saavala, 2001). In a comparison study that identified psychopathic levels amongst male and female parricide offenders Liettu and others (2008), identified that male offenders are more frequently motived[spelling?] to commit parricide due to mental instabilities over and above female offenders. Additionally, Myeres and associate's[grammar?] (2011) expresses that almost 50 percent of parricide crimes are committed due to the offenders[grammar?] unstable state of mind.

Case study: David Brom

Friends and family of David Brom would often describe him as having a harmless nature. However, this gentles[grammar?] façade only masked a twisted and corrupt side of David. On the night of February 17th, 1988 David got into a heated argument with his father about his choice of music style. This discussion lead David to go into his garage a pickup a large axe. With this weapon David killed both his parents (Bernard and Paulette) as well as David’s two siblings (Diane and Richard).

Witnesses state that the day after the killings David went into school grounds and boasted that he had just murdered his family with an axe. Bom was taken into police custody on February 18th, 1988. Initially, he was referred to juvenile justice system due to his age. Yet, the severity of the crime leads him straight into the adult judicial system. Through hours of psychological testing Brom was diagnosed with schizophrenia. On October 16th, 1989, Brom was determined legally insane and charge with first degree murder, of[grammar?] which he would serve three life sentences.

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Test your Knowledge !

1 Which of the following is the most common motive behind parricide?

Mental Instability
Psychological or emotional abuse
Antisocial- personality disorder

2 Children killing out of fear would best fit which motive of parricide?

Antisocial personality disorder

3 Which factor is NOT included in Heide’s Typology of Parricide (Heide, 1992)

Severely abused
Severely mentally ill
Dangerously antisocial
Severely neglected

4 Males are more likely to commit parricide due to mental illness True or False?


Break time! Watch this insightful video that captures the top 15 chilling parricide cases-

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

Whilst it’s one thing to understand the motives behind parricide, it is another to understand the psychological theories. With the use of two motivational theories 1- The Psychdynamic Oedipus complex and 2- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we can comprehensively understand the motives of parricide and gain a deeper understanding on what drives human behaviour.

Psychoanalytic Theory- Oedipus Complex[edit | edit source]

History and Explanation of the Theory

The Oedipus complex is a psychoanalytical theory that was proposed by Sigmund Freud in his early novel “Interpretation of dreams” (1899). This concept best fits into Freuds[grammar?] motivation theory which hypothesises that unconscious forces such as hidden impulses and motives drive our behaviour. This complex in particular, suggests that children develop a sexual desire for their parents of the opposite sex and develop a rivalry with the parent of the same sex (see figure 2.). Freud argues that this psychosexual stage is critical for a child’s development and occurs from roughly the age of three (Freud, 1913). The theory was derived from the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, a Theban king who allegedly murdered his father in order to gain his mother’s hand in marriage.

Although highly controversial, Freud proposed some persuasive comments to justify the reliability of this theory. Closely linked to Freuds[grammar?] psychosexual stages of development Freud argued that a child’s desire for sexual involvement with the opposite sex is kept out of consciousness through repression (McKinney, 2010). Evidently, this impulse still has strong influence over the child’s behaviour. The Oedipus complex fits best in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Interestingly, successful completion of denying these impulses was said to be the largest achievement of the human mind (McKinney, 2010).

Oedipus Complex and Parricide

Figure 2. The Oedipus Complex as explained by Sigmund Freud

As suggested by Freud, the Oedipus complex is often naturally resolved. This resolution is best explained when using Freuds[grammar?] id, ego and superego framework. The initial conflict felt by the child towards the opposite sex is driven by the id, which is the primary drive for immediate satisfaction of all unconscious urges (Britton et al., 2018). The ego however, mediates between the urges driven by the id and reality which, will often result in a more realistic decision. Lastly the conflict is resolved by the super-ego. This mechanism is the foundation of an individual’s inner moral authority and informs the child that the father figure means no harm this then represses the Oedipus complex (Britton et al., 2018).

The [what?] literature suggests that the Oedipus complex can also be supressed by external factors (Loewald, 2000). If the relationships between parents are loving, nurturing and secure children are unlikely to act on these impulses.

However, in the presence of stress, trauma or aggression the child will experience infantile neurosis (Loewald, 2000) Freud argues that this is how Oedipus complex leads to parricide. When looking at the motive of abuse, it is evident how the psychological and emotional trauma caused by the abuse can lead an individual to give into the impulses that are explained by this theoretical framework. In addition to providing a rich explanation behind the motive of abuse the Oedipus complex can also explain how mental instability can motivate an individual to commit parricide (Loewald, 2000). As Freud suggests [grammar?] that a mentally unstable mind is a weak mind and is therefore highly susceptive to give into negative impulses.

Maslows hierarchy.png

The Humanistic Theory- Hierarchy of Needs[edit | edit source]

History and Explanation of the Theory

The humanistic theory is important to note as it rejects the foundation of the psychodynamic approach. The humanistic theory takes a holistic approach as it emphasises an individual’s worth, human needs and the unique nature of each individual (McLeod, 2018). The theory was introduced by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. A fundamental aspect of this theory is that people are highly motivated to self-actualize which, can be defined in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as achieving ones[grammar?] full potential (Maslow, 1954).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory that involves a five-tier model of human needs (see figure 3.) According to Maslow, needs on the bottom of the hierarchy need to be fulfilled before moving up to higher tiers (Maslow, 1943). Individuals move through the hierarchy in order to fulfill the top level, self-actualisation. The top tier is what drives an individual to move through the human needs. This process becomes sequential and eventually habitual (Kendrick, 2010).

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and parricide

[what?] Literature suggest [grammar?] that serious consequences can arise if needs are not met. Maslow argued that failure to meet needs at various stages of the hierarchy can lead to physical and psychological illness (Kendrick, 2010). Looking at the example of Cody Posey, which was mentioned above, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can provide an explanation as to why an individual may be motivated to commit parricide. Cody was neglected, abused, and rejected of basic human needs for a prolonged period of time. Additionally, he would not have fulfilled the safety tier as his father created a very hostile and abuse home environment. Additionally, love and belonging would have been stripped from Codey’s life.  Perhaps due to the combination of these factors Cody felt that in order to fulfill his needs he was to kill his parents. This theory could very well explain how an individual is motived to killing their parents if human needs are not met.

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Test your Knowledge !

1 Fill in the blanks: This complex in particular, suggests that children develop a sexual desire for their parents of the ________ and develop a rivalry with the parent of _______.

Opposite sex, same sex
Same sex, Opposite sex

2 What factors contribute to infantile neurosis as explained by the Oedipus complex? Click all that apply.


3 How many tiers does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have )


4 Serious consequences can arise if needs are not met true or false?


Discussion starter- With all this in mind, do you believe parricide is undoubtedly a punishable crime?

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter provides some insight as to why children kill their parents. Parricide is an up and coming crime [factual?] that is seen most commonly in the United States. It defines a crime whereby a child has murdered their parents. Many argue that are a crime like this is unjustifiable however, with the use of Heides[grammar?] Typology of parricide we are able to gain insight into the motives behind these killing.

Abuse is the most common motive behind this crime, whereby ongoing emotional and psychological stress drives an adolescent to kill. Next there is mental illness, research argues that many offenders suffer from either depression or schizophrenia. It is suggested that these two leading illnesses motivate an individual to commit parricide as they often cause a skewed state of mind. Lastly, there is the dangerous impact of an antisocial child. Whereby these individuals will develop conduct or antisocial personality disorder and often murder to be vindictive.   Finally, psychological theory can provide a deeper understanding into this monstrous crime[grammar?]. Freuds[grammar?] psychoanalytical theory suggests that the Oedipus complex can explain a large amount of motivation behind parricide. Suggesting that internal sexual conflicts can drive an individual to form hostile feelings towards the same sex parent and sexual desires for the opposite sex parent[grammar?]. Lastly, the humanistic theory explains how motives for parricide can be sparked if human needs are not met.

It is important to considering the entirety of this chapter before coming to any conclusion about parricide[grammar?]. Although an act like this will never be morally correct it is still critical to think about what might motivate a child to commit this crime.  

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Baldwin, K. (2001). Battered child syndrome as a sword and a shield.American Journal of Criminal Law,29,59–82.

Britton, R., Feldman, M., & O'Shaughnessy, E. (2018). The Oedipus complex today. London: Karnac Books.

Davis, D. (2017). Bad blood (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks.

Edens, J., & Vincent, G. (2008). Juvenile Psychopathy: A Clinical Construct in Need of Restraint?. Journal Of Forensic Psychology Practice, 8(2), 186-197. doi: 10.1080/15228930801964042

England, C. (2007). The Battered Women’s Syndrome: A History and Interpretation of the Law of Self-Defense as it Pertains to Battered Women who Kill their Husbands. Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, 3. doi: 10.15695/vurj.v3i0.2762

Ewing, C. P. (1997).Fatal families: The dynamics of intrafamilial homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: SagePublications.

Freud, S. (1913). The interpretation of dreams. [United States]: Obscure Press.

Gallo, M., & Rinaldo, V. (2011). Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation: A study of undergraduate student motivation in science. Teaching And Learning, 6(1). doi: 10.26522/tl.v6i1.379

Goodwin, M. R. (1996). States are beginning to recognize that abused children who kill their parents should beafforded the right to assert a claim of self-defense.Southwestern University Law Review,25, 429–460.

Hart, J., & Helms, J. (2003). Factors of parricide: Allowance of the use of battered child syndrome as a defense. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 8(6), 671-683. doi: 10.1016/s1359-1789(02)00103-9

Heide, K. (2012). Understanding Parricide (1st ed., pp. 1-464). South Florida: Oxford University Press.

Heide, K. M. (1993). Parents who get killed and the children who kill them.Journal of Interpersonal Violence,8,531–544.

Heide, K., & Petee, T. (2007). Parricide. Journal Of Interpersonal Violence, 22(11), 1382-1399. doi: 10.1177/0886260507305526

Heide, K. M. (1992).Why kids kill parents. Columbus, OH: Ohio State Univ. Press

Heide, K. M. (1993). Weapons used by juveniles and adults to kill parents.Behavioral Sciences and the Law,11,397–405

Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-driven cognition and functional behavior: The fundamental-motives framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 63-67.

Liettu, A., Säävälä, H., Hakko, H., Räsänen, P., & Joukamaa, M. (2008). Mental disorders of male parricidal offenders. Social Psychiatry And Psychiatric Epidemiology, 44(2), 96-103. doi: 10.1007/s00127-008-0419-9

Loewald, H. (2000). The Waning of the Oedipus Complex. Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 27(4), 751-775. doi: 10.1177/000306517902700401 Marleau, J., Auclair, N., & Millaud, F. (2006). Comparison of Factors Associated with Parricide in Adults and Adolescents. Journal Of Family Violence, 21(5), 321-325. doi: 10.1007/s10896-006-9029-z Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

McLeod, S. A. (2018, May 21). Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

McKinney, J. (2010). Psychosexual Stages. The Journal Of Psychological Research. Retrieved from

Mulvey, A., Fournier, A., & Donahue, T. (2006). Murder in the Family: The Menendez Brothers. Victims & Offenders, 1(3), 213-224. doi: 10.1080/15564880600843677

Myers, W., & Vo, E. (2011). Adolescent Parricide and Psychopathy. International Journal Of Offender Therapy And Comparative Criminology, 56(5), 715-729. doi: 10.1177/0306624x11410587

Säävälä H (2001) The son who killed his father—a psychiatric study. University of Oulu, Oulu

Salekin, R. T., & Debus, S. A. (2008). Assessing child and adolescent psychopathy. In R. Jackson (Ed.), International perspectives on mental health. Learning forensic assessment (p. 347–383). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Van Sambeek, M. (1989). Parricide as Self-Defense. A Journal Of Theory And Practice, 7(1), 87-106.

External links[edit | edit source]