What Influences Kids to Become Killers?

Some youths are highly susceptible to detrimental impressions.

Posted Sep 04, 2020

Photo taken by K. Ramsland
Source: Photo taken by K. Ramsland

The infamous serial killer Ted Bundy once told a journalist that when violent thoughts start at a young age, that child is headed down the wrong path. “Perhaps the only firm trend that I ever ran across in the study of abnormal behavior,” he said, “was that the younger that a person was when they manifested abnormal behavior or thought patterns, the more likely it was that there was going to be a condition that would be lasting…a chronic disorder.”

In some cases, we can spot the impact of certain factors during this vulnerable time.

1) Humiliation and frustration can generate thoughts of violence in children that form enduring fantasies, setting up later actions.

Edmund Kemper, the Coed Killer of Santa Cruz, said he’d envisioned mass murder and beheadings from a young age, mostly as a reaction to the constant belittling he’d endured from his mother. When his father left, he had no buffer. He hated to be told he was a failure. When he was 15, feeling rejected by both parents, he shot his paternal grandparents after his grandmother nagged him. He was sent for treatment but hardly changed. Instead, he duped the psychiatrists in thinking he was cured. His simmering anger fed more fantasies, fueled now with sexual arousal. Once free, he picked up hitchhiking coeds in Santa Cruz to kill, dismember and commit necrophilic acts. Kemper then murdered and beheaded his mother, blaming her as the primary reason his life had gone wrong.

Dennis “BTK” Rader also envisioned targeting girls when he was young, in part because he disliked the feeling of inadequacy he experienced around them. Imagining capturing them in traps or tying them to tracks restored his sense of power. “By seventh grade,” he said, “I had fantasies about tying popular girls onto the railroad tracks.” He sought to replicate the satisfaction gained from his fantasies during his murders.

For some people, humiliation runs runs deep, depriving them of self-esteem and a sense of control. When this occurs young, they can fixate on it and seek ways to restore control and exact payback.

2) Some insecure children respond to perceived strength in others, participating in activities they might not initiate on their own and remaking themselves into someone they might not have become.

Several school shooter teams were alliances between strong and weak individuals. Clinical psychologist Peter Langman, author of Why Kids Kill and School Shooters, analyzed Dylan Klebold’s relationship with Eric Harris, the two students who massacred classmates in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 before killing themselves.

Langman describes Harris as a decisive, psychopathic leader with nihilistic beliefs, and Klebold as an insecure follower. When Langman read Klebold’s journal, he found odd preoccupations and bizarre thought processes, along with feelings of isolation and poor self-esteem. This suggested a debilitating shyness. “Nobody accepting me,” Klebold wrote, “even though I want to be accepted.” He feared abandonment. “A close reading of his journal shows a fragmented identity and a dependent personality,” says Langman. “He was floundering. Because he had no solid sense of himself, he was overly dependent on others.”

When his best friend found a girlfriend, Klebold transferred his attachment to Harris. “Eric’s narcissism seemed [to Klebold] like a sense of power,” Langman continues. “It was Dylan’s salvation. It gave him an anchor. But to be acceptable to Harris, Dylan had to transform himself. There was a profound difference between who he was and who he pretended to be. To give a Nazi salute, when his background was part-Jewish, meant a profound rejection of part of his identity.”

Harris’s clarity, hate-filled as it was, helped Klebold navigate a confusing world. He felt more secure, but the relationship demanded that he support Harris’s need to act out in a harmful way. Klebold evolved into a killer. “He might not have done what he did,” Langman concludes, “without Harris’ influence.”

3) Some "tough" or "cool" images that gain prominence in media can impact identity in those with a tenuous sense of self. In recent years, we’ve seen kids aspiring to the status of a criminal psychopath.  

Neuropsychologist Kent Kiehl, author of The Psychopath Whisperer, evaluated nineteen-year-old Christopher Gribble after he’d been involved in murder. In 2009 in New Hampshire, Gribble had followed Steven Spader and two others into the home of Kimberly Cates. Spader hacked her to death with a machete while Gribble stabbed her eleven-year-old daughter, Jamie. She pretended to be dead, which allowed her to survive and get help. The boys were arrested the following day.

Gribble adopted a callous façade, telling police the experience had been “cool.” His only regret was that the girl he’d stabbed had survived. “I thought I would feel bad. I’m almost sorry to say I don’t. I thought I would at least puke or something. I just felt nothing.” He was chatty and upbeat as he led investigators to where he and Spader had buried the weapons.

Gribble’s public defender asked Kiehl to examine him. Kiehl has been a leader in scanning the brains of offenders to identify differences in the psychopath’s brain. Gribble told him that another psychologist had tested him on the MMPI-2 and diagnosed him as a psychopath. (Either this was an error or Gribble misunderstood.) “Gribble had decided to be psychopathic,” Kiehl relates, “like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Of all the items the psychologist might have conveyed, Gribble had honed in on this negative label.

After performing his own evaluation, Kiehl found the home-schooled Gribble to have led a sheltered life in a devoutly Mormon household. He was socially awkward, with a low IQ. “It was like talking with a ten-year-old. He had limited social experiences, like he’d lived inside a cubicle. He had conflicts with his mother, and he talked about killing her, but had never laid a hand on her. This is unusual restraint for a kid with psychopathic traits.”

In other areas of his life, Gribble showed no such tendencies. “There was no glibness, no grandiosity, no history of lying, no fearlessness. There was no evidence of leeching off others. He was not impulsive or irresponsible.”

Kiehl thought Spader, with his disturbed criminality, had influenced the suggestible, immature Gribble. “My clinical sense,” says Kiel, “is that this kid just got with the wrong crowd. He had a fragile mind. You can plant an idea into a fragile mind and get them to do anything. His belief that he’s a psychopath is delusional.”

The cause and treatment of adolescent offending has been a long-term focus in criminology. The most difficult to treat are violent offenders who show risk for developing into adult psychopaths. Kiehl has worked with the program developers at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC) in Wisconsin. They use decompression therapy and social bonding for treating violent psychopathic juveniles. The MJTC has shown impressive results in terms of replacing antisocial attitudes and behaviors with improved orientation toward prosocial behaviors, and with a reduction in recidivating.

Clearly, not all children subjected to humiliation or poor role models develop murderous minds, but those who do show us the potential for damage that reaches beyond the affected individual.   


Kiehl, K. (2014 ) The Psychopath whisperer: The science of those without conscience. Broadway.

Langman, P. (2017). School shooters: Understanding high school, college, and adult perpetrators. Rowman & Littlefield.