Friday 22 November 2019

David Coleman: These are kind of deaths that leave us feeling numbest of all

'Filicide' beggars belief, but research has shown there are typical circumstances in which it happens, writes David Coleman

Murders happen on an almost daily basis in Ireland. We can become somewhat inured to the horror of killing. But if a parent kills his or her own child, it is always shocking.

For parents, especially, it is mystifying and distressing to read about another parent who, seemingly, kills their child or children.

The act of killing your own child seems so alien a concept that it beggars belief.

It can feel almost impossible to get into the mind of a parent who would do such a horrendous thing. But yet we always ask how and why a parent does this?

Research into filicides (killing your own child) does show us that there seems to be a number of typical circumstances in which parents do kill their own children. But it is not research that makes for pleasant reading.

The first situation appears to be a tragically misplaced sense of altruism and care on behalf of the parent.

Most often it occurs when a parent is significantly depressed and already has a plan to die by suicide.

For example, research shows that if a mother has small children and she takes her own life, there's a one in 20 chance she'll take her children with her.

The parent looks at the world through depressed, often hopeless, eyes and can't bear the thought of their children suffering through the terrible pain of life as they have experienced it, and so believes the children will be better off in "heaven".

Alternatively, the parent may be concerned about what life will be like for their child or children when they are gone and so will kill the children rather than leave them with the hardship of coping after the parent's death.

Mistakenly, but tragically, the parent really believes they are doing their child a favour.

Indeed, a recent study in the University of Manchester looked at records of 297 cases of convicted filicide and 45 cases of filicide-suicides in England and Wales between January 1997 and December 2006.

One of their stand-out findings was that in 40pc of the cases the parent had a recorded history of some kind of mental illness, like depression. Active psychosis (in which a person has lost touch with reality and may be delusional or hallucinating) accounts for about 15pc of filicides.

A further finding, that is also well documented elsewhere, is that fathers are significantly more likely to kill their children than mothers.

Another typical circumstance that can lead to the killing of a child is fatal child abuse in which a child might be shaken, thrown against a wall or down stairs, or beaten to death. Fathers are three times more likely than mothers to fatally assault their children.

Physical abuse of children is, unfortunately, common. In extreme situations where parents have extraordinarily severe or harsh discipline regimens, or where parents' own stress levels become further heightened by a distressed baby or child, the consequences can be fatal.

Fatal child assault is, most usually, associated with the deaths of younger children and babies.

Apart from circumstances of fatal battering, US research suggests that the degree of violence that is used against children killed by a parent most often reflects the child's age, with greater violence used against older children.

It can be easier to drug or suffocate a young child or baby, whereas older children and teenagers (who may put up a struggle) are more likely to be stabbed or shot.

A further reason for killing a child is to get rid of an unwanted baby. Frequently, these killings occur in the hours after birth.

Often the extended family values, about babies being born out of wedlock for example, may be held so fundamentally that a mother may feel she just cannot bear the shame.

A final, and least common, reason for killing a child is revenge against a spouse or partner. In these tragic circumstances, a father (typically) kills his children to "get back at" his wife or partner.

Most often the reason for the revenge is a father's desire to punish the mother of his children.

Sometimes a father may go on to kill himself, but not typically. One in every eight cases of filicide also results in the parent dying by suicide.

Even with all of the research knowledge about filicide, it can still seem incomprehensible that a parent would kill his or her own child. I believe this is because, even though we can explain how a parent may kill their child, we find it almost impossible to excuse it.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. He specialises in working with children, teenagers and their families.

Irish Independent

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