Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill

Conduct Disorders

Criminal Intent

Nathaniel Abraham
Nathaniel Abraham

In 1999, eleven-year-old Nathaniel Abraham was on trial for murder--the youngest defendant to date in a murder trial in Michigan.  The country was disturbed that such a young boy might be able to form criminal intent—and not everyone agreed that he could---but in Michigan law, there's no age limit for when a child can be waived to adult court.  In other words, there's no limit to when he can think through his or her actions with adult consciousness.

Abraham was so waived, charged with shooting a stranger, Ronnie Greene, 18, outside a store in Pontiac, Michigan.  He had a stolen rifle and allegedly had bragged about planning to shoot someone.  He practiced on targets and then when he'd actually shot Green, he'd boasted about it afterward.  Only when he was arrested did he claim that the shooting was accidental. He was eventually convicted of second-degree murder. 

Part of the problem was that there was no protocol for assessing diminished mental capacity in a child of Abraham's age.  However, psychologists and social workers are becoming increasingly more aware of the special types of behavior problems among children and adolescents.  Some of these are signals that violence may lie ahead.

The Variety of Disorders

 There are many overlapping conduct disorders that play into juvenile crime., although given a child's developing and changing personality, it is difficult to diagnose mental disorders among adolescents. It's also true that many attitudes and behaviors characteristic of teenagers, such as anger, defiance, and restlessness, match the symptoms of several disorders.

In general, a conduct disorder is a persistent pattern of behavior during childhood and adolescence that includes:

  • violating social rules
  • aggression
  • property damage
  • lies
  • stealing

There are six different categories of conduct disorder:

  • Conduct Disorder - a behavioral problem involving persistent violations of the rights of others.
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder - Such youths usually exhibit a pattern of defiant and disobedient behavior, including resistance to authority figures.  This includes recurrent temper problems, frequent arguments with adults, and evidence of anger and resentment.
  • Disruptive Behavior Disorder  - this is a category for pervasive restlessness and aggression that doesn't quite qualify for the first two categories, but is nevertheless a concern.
  • Adjustment Disorder: With Mixed Disturbance of Emotions and Conduct - an array of antisocial behaviors that occur within three months of a stressor.
  • Adjustment Disorder: With Disturbance of Conduct - similar to the other adjustment disorder, but with antisocial behaviors only, not emotional components.
  • Child or Adolescent Antisocial Behavior – a category for isolated antisocial behaviors that fail to support an outright mental disorder

Many of these have been linked with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD or ADD), which actually represents two separate problems.  Children may have ADD (a problem keeping their attention focused) or ADHD (a problem with restless behavior and attention). Disorganization is common and the child may lose personal items regularly.  Even when spoken to directly, the child can't provide feedback when asked.  Hyperactive children frequently get into minor difficulties.

Children with attention and behavior problems like these may actually signal that they are developing into psychopaths or children without empathy or remorse.

Children without a Conscience

In a study of eighty-one boys in a residential treatment program, symptoms of aggressive conduct disorder, along with lying and stealing, were predictive of adolescent psychopathy in those aged 14 to 17.  In other words, if they had a conduct disorder and also had acted in some antisocial manner, it was more likely than not that they were psychopaths.

In another study, the two factors in young offenders indicative of psychopathy were impulsive conduct problems and callous attitudes.  These children develop attitudes of grandiosity and they shun responsibility.  They're also susceptible to boredom.

In a long-term study, children with psychopathic personalities were shown to be stable offenders (having more repeat offenses), were prone to instigating the most serious offenses, and were more impulsive. 

To sum this up, childhood psychopathy has proven to be the best predictor of increased antisocial behavior in adolescence, especially in boys who were hyperactive, impulsive, and suffered from attention deficits.

Common traits in the background of psychopathic children include:

  • a mother exposed to deprivation or abuse as a child
  • a transient father
  • a mother who cannot maintain stable emotional connection with child
  • low birth weight or birth complications
  • unusual reactions to pain (especially to insult)
  • lack of attachment to adults
  • failure to make eye contact when touched
  • low frustration tolerance
  • sense of self-importance
  • transient relationships throughout childhood, or close association with another like him
  • cruelty toward others
  • animal abuse
  • lack of remorse for hurting someone
  • lack of empathy in friendships

How does this apply to kids who kill?  How do they get this way?  Is it something in their environment, something in how they were raised, or something in their genes?

Some psychologists claim that it's mostly learned through cultural images and role models.  Let's have a look at what an expert on "killology" has to say.