Sunday 22 April 2018

Irish psychologist explains why teenagers are driven to kill in new true crime series Teens Who Kill

Psychologist Owen Connolly
Psychologist Owen Connolly
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

A leading Irish psychologist has warned that increasing medical interventions in childbirth are resulting in an epidemic of anxiety and associated behaviours in children and teenagers, and that in some extreme cases this can even result in murder.

Owen Connolly has analysed several cases of teenagers who have killed people as part of new CBS Reality true crime series Teens Who Kill and found that all of the young people shared a similar background – right back to a difficult birth experience.

Mr Connolly, of The Connolly Counselling Centre in south Dublin, has written about the reptilian function of the brain, our natural alarm system, which he claims can be triggered by interventions in childbirth such as forceps or ventouse delivery, or caesarean sections, and have a lasting impact on a child’s emotional development.

“A child who has had a difficult birth, a difficult experience coming into the world, lives in a world where they feel very defensive,” he says.  “It’s like they’re going around with an AK47.

“They have this anxiety and fear of outcomes tormenting them all the time and some of them go to extremes with that.  They assume everybody hates them and is out to get them. 

“As a psychologist we understand that people who are going through this kind of process and raised in a poor or bad environment are set up for behaving badly and doing dangerous things. 

“When we looked at the case studies of each individual responsible for the murders [in the series] you could see a history from the very beginning of these young children’s lives and what triggered the type of behaviour that ended up with them committing murder.”

Of course that is not to say that every child who has a difficult birth will end up killing somebody. A loving and supportive environment, and in some cases therapy, can ensure a child overcomes any issues that may be present.

The reason why some children born with the aid of medical interventions will have problems, explains Mr Connolly, is that their natural defence mechanism or ‘fight or flight’ response, is triggered, and does not switch off, so that child will “stay on that state of alert”.

 “It’s not noticed until later on - they’re acting out, behaving badly, maybe they’re a colicky baby, a child who doesn’t sleep well.  All of these things can be kinds of markers,” says Mr Connolly.

“Once that happens it changes the biology of the child, their breathing pattern changes, it changes their blood - the supply of oxygen - all these things are affected.  The child doesn’t feel the same as other kids.”

Mr Connolly and his team at his south Dublin practice treat children and teenagers dealing with these difficulties.

“The kind of support we use here, our system, is reset therapy – to help to reset that natural alarm system.”

These children can display a variety of behaviours which can indicate issues.

“Very early on you begin to notice they’re not sleeping very well, they’re not comfortable a lot of the time, they’re problem eaters, very fussy about a whole lot of things around them,” he says.

“They see everything as dangerous.  The kinds of things we would hear them say would be that scary ideas are popping into their head, or they’re trying to pretend they’re someone else.  They’re usually afraid of the dark, constantly worrying about things, and feeling afraid something bad is going to happen.  It’s a sense of alertness in them.  If they hear a creaky floor they think somebody is coming to kill them or hurt them. Ultimately, they can feel like it's kill or be killed."

Mr Connolly believes that some children with this experience “will end up in prison because they acted instinctively rather than by using their rational brain.”

However, he says it is “absolutely” possible to pre-empt problems and help a young child to overcome these issues before they reach that critical point.

“I’m fully convinced,” he says, “I even say to other clinicians, ‘Send me your worst people.  Send them to me and I can show you that change can take place.’  

“It’s easily fixed.  We have 3, 4, 5, 6 year olds showing up in school behaving in a particular way and it gets to the stage where parents can’t cope, but within three, four, five sessions that child is back to normal.”

Even the teenagers profiled in Teens Who Kill are not beyond help, according to Mr Connolly.

“I think people will watch [the series] and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ but we don’t want to demonise people.  We want to give hope that no matter what circumstances people are in they can be helped. As a psychologist I believe people can be altered in their thinking.”

‘Teens Who Kill’ airs 10pm Sundays on CBS Reality (Sky channel 146).

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