On Monday 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 14 years. Such acts are assumed to be uncommon but occurrences are more frequent than we might think. In the United States where guns are more widely available, a parent is killed by their own child almost every day.
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.
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 aren’t 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. Such a patient would probably need the full-time support of a mental health team, but treatment would depend on the individual. My beliefs are that people adapt to their environments, and to do so they find some pretty creative ways of surviving.
In the short term I would be looking at widening choices about those ways of surviving. In the longer term I would want to provide trusting relationships so that pathways for optimism, empathy and ways of self-soothing can be formed. This would be pretty difficult as early influences tend to be the most lingering, but the brain retains some plasticity so that there is always hope that our mind can be positively influenced.
However, prevention is better than a cure. At antenatal classes, less time could be spent teaching parents-to-be how to cope with labour and birth, which are over swiftly, and more time on parenting skills that will have repercussions for a lifetime. We need to teach the basics of how children form a relationship and how to make that relationship as rewarding as possible for the child and for the parents.
John Bowlby’s research into how children can become secure, well adjusted people – or not – needs to be known not just by psychologists but by all of us, especially parents-to-be. It is probably more relevant to a successful life than many subjects that are presently offered in schools; and by teaching attachment theory and child development we would be giving society as a whole a better chance of avoiding child abuse and its consequences.
As well as continuing support for parents, all children need a safe support network so that they never need feel isolated. We need to teach children to recognise what abuse is, because as it is probably all they have ever known, they will not recognise it as anything other than the norm.
We could be doing more to support parents and support children. It takes a village to bring up a child and if such communities are less common we need to strengthen other networks to take their place to end the isolation that can end in tragedy.
Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and author of Couch Fiction.