Why did two teens murder their neighbors? A psychologist sheds some light on the matter.

We are shocked and horrified that the suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Olten is a 15-year-old female neighbor who knew the family. We want answers as to why this girl would lure a 9-year-old into the woods and murder her in cold blood.

We also want to know why a 14-year-old would kill his 4-year-old neighbor, Alex Mercado, and stuff his body in a dryer.

We want answers because we are frightened as parents for the safety of our children, or by the possibility that our child could ever harm another person. We look to video games and movies to blame the violence upon. We look to the parents and question them — what they did and what they didn’t do.

I think we want answers to put our minds at ease, and to feel in control of our world, family, and children. The simple answer is: No, it is not video games and movies, otherwise we would have thousands of little killers running around, but we don’t — we have some kids that, when given the wrong environmentmet with their temperament, are like a fire being fueled by gasoline. Teen killers usually have a lower IQ and a history of cruelty to animals, themselves, or siblings. They have little or no empathy for others, and violate the rights of others often without remorse.

We know violence is a learned behavior. Children learn to be violent from their family and friends, and observe it in their neighborhoods. These behaviors are then reinforced by movies, video games, and music. But again, not all kids that watch the movies or play the games will be violent. It is not the average ordinary kid that kills. It is usually a child with a history of a mental disorder, such as:

Oppositional Defiant Disorder: A pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior. These children often lose their tempers and argue with adults. These kids deliberately annoy people and do not comply with rules or requests. They often blame others for their mistakes or misbehavior. The prevalence ranges from 2-16%. Childhood ODD is strongly associated with later developing Conduct Disorder. Untreated, 52% of children with ODD will continue to meet the DSM-IV criteria up to three years later, and about half of those 52% will progress to Conduct Disorder.

Conduct Disorder: A more severe form of Oppositional Defiant Disorder and the equivalent of adult Anti-Social Personality Disorder (which serial killers are diagnosed with), kids with Conduct Disorder have great difficulty following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. They are often viewed as “bad” or delinquent, rather than mentally ill, by children and adults. These kids exhibit aggression to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitful behavior, stealing, and serious violations of rules.

Predictors of Teen Violence:
• Family conflict
• Academic failure, beginning in elementary school
• Friends who engage in alcohol and drug use, delinquent behavior, violence, or other problem behavior
• Peer rejection
• Family history of problem behaviors
• Favorable parental attitudes to problem behaviors
• Witnessing family violence

Lack of Empathy

It is believed that empathy and sympathetic concerns for others are essential factors for inhibiting aggression toward others. It is also suggested that aggressive behavior arises from abnormal processing of affective information. This results in defiance in experiencing fear, empathy, and guilt, which, in normally developing individuals, stops the acting out of violent behavior and impulses.

Recently, a functional magnetic resonance imaging study conducted by Jean Decety at the University of Chicago reported that youth with Conduct Disorder showed a specific and very strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum (an area of the brain that responds to feeling rewarded) when watching pain inflicted on others. This suggests that they were enjoying watching pain. Unlike the control group (non-Conduct Disordered), watching people in pain did not activate the area of the brain involved in empathy, understanding social interaction, and moral reasoning.


Children with Conduct Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder need to be intervened with as early as possible. One goal is to help them learn more effective and appropriate ways to manage anger and frustration. Another goal is to help them develop empathy and compassion for others. Treatment for these children is not brief, because establishing new attitudes and behavior patterns can take time. The earlier these issues are identified and treated, the better the prognosis. Without treatment, these kids become adults who are unable to manage their lives, continue to have problems with relationships, and are at a greater risk for violence and crime. If a child with Conduct Disorder goes untreated, he or she will almost always be diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder as an adult.

Teen killers are scary, and fortunately they are aberrant in our society. This doesn’t mean they should not be punished, and in some cases, should be kept away from society for their entire lives. We need to be concerned about the welfare of our citizens, and remember our duty to protect our society from those who are a clear danger to others, even if they commit their crimes as teens.