Our society has a tendency to ignore the problems associated with a child's mental health before and after a tragedy occurs

kids that kill
Robert Thompson and Jon Venables

Kids that kill. We don’t like hearing it, seeing it or even acknowledging it because it says something truly awful about our society. But kids kill. Eric Smith, at the age of 13, beat and choked 4-year old Derrick Robie to death. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables lured 2-year old James Bulger away from his mother in a Liverpool mall, dragged him to a railroad track and killed him by smashing his skull with bricks, rocks and a metal bar. Thompson and Venables were 11. This past Tuesday, 14-year old Philip Chism is alleged to have murdered 24-year old teacher Collen Ritzer with a box cutter. Authorities believe Chism cut and slashed the math teacher in a school bathroom, then moved her body into the woods.

When kids kill, it stirs up armchair psychologists, pundits, liberals, conservatives, religious leaders, politicians, you name it. And all these people attempt to explain why. Why a child barely into puberty would find it necessary to take the life of another human being. “Video games!” some bellow, while others blame spanking, Hollywood, a lack of “God” in schools, guns (even though the four children I list above did not use guns in their crimes) and yes, even single parents.

No one really wants to dig down, below the hyperbole and the punditry and the ennui, stop playing the blame game and try to solve this problem. It’s a horrible subject – children killing – and while it does seem to happen often enough to garner national, if not worldwide attention, no government or society is willing to do the one thing I think might help. Make mental health okay to talk about, make seeking help okay to talk about. Remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it easier for parents to get help for a kid who might be struggling.

What we do instead is charge these kids as adults, try them as adults, convict them and shove them into prison. Take the case of Joshua Phillips. In 1998, 14-year old Joshua Phillips murdered Maddie Clifton, an 8-year old neighbor. Joshua told police he accidentally hurt Maddie with a baseball and killed her because he believed he would get into trouble. Authorities stated the crime was premeditated. Maddie’s body was discovered under Joshua’s bed. Joshua was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In June of 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole. For Joshua Phillips, this could mean a new sentence, something Maddie’s mother finds horrifying. She, along with others have called Joshua a “monster” and she fears that if he is released, he will hurt other people. But there is research that proves Joshua Phillips’ brain did not work the same way an adult killer’s brain works at the time he murdered Maddie Clifton.

Studies have shown that in adolescents, a crucial part of the brain – the frontal lobes – are not fully connected. This is the part that asks “Is this a good idea?” and “What is the consequence of this action?” Frances Jensen, a Harvard expert on epilepsy, has researched adolescent neurology and learned that it’s not so much what teenagers are thinking but how. Jensen learned that the nerves connecting the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are “sluggish.” Teenagers don’t have as much of the fatty coating called “myelin,” or white matter, as adults. Much like insulation on an electrical wire, nerves need myelin for nerve signals to flow freely. Diminished, spotty or “thin” myelin leads to inefficient communication between different parts of the brain.

Typical examples of this are falling grades, changes in dress or hair, new friends, experimentation with drugs or alcohol. Ramifications for negative behavior rarely enter the equation and what adults call “bad behavior” is really the results of a still-forming brain. But what do we do about atypical responses, kids who hurt or kill?

Ask someone what should happen to Phillip Chism and the most likely response will be prison. Lock him up and throw away the key. Prosecutors want to try him as an adult, even though research has proven Phillip Chism’s teenage brain doesn’t work the same way as yours or mine. And if he is tried and convicted as an adult, what awaits him in prison? Will he receive PET scans, psychological testing, therapy? Will anyone take the time to see what, if anything is going on Philip Chism’s brain? No. That costs money, money taxpayers don’t want to spend on “monsters.”

Maybe Phillip Chism has anti-social personality disorder. According to Mayo Clinic, symptom criteria for a diagnosis for ASD include being at least 18 years of age and having had symptoms of childhood conduct disorder before age 15. These symptoms include such acts as stealing, vandalism, violence, cruelty to animals and bullying without feeling remorse – or justifying behavior after harming others. EEG’s, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the House-Tree-Person test and other tests can be used to help identify early childhood mental illness. Rarely are any of those tests used on imprisoned children.

We yearn for a violence-free world. In order to achieve that, we must come to grips with the fact that we have violent children who must be treated as children. Their brains are different, their mental health is different, their crimes are different. They must be punished, absolutely, but the punishment has to include treatment. If we as a society cannot see the dangers in locking up a 14-year old without allowing them to receive help, we are continuing the cycle. Abuse at home often gives us abusive children who grow into abusive teenagers. A 24-hour, unfiltered news cycle numbs our senses to horrific acts of violence. And a society that as a whole refuses to recognize that some kids who kill can be helped and can grow up to be healthy, productive adults gives us a very bleak future.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole word blind.

kids that kill


  1. What I do know is that his brain works differently than yours or mine. And we as a society are so obsessed with revenge that we will never, ever find out what his potential might have been. We will never find out if he has any sort of mental illness or even a physical brain injury. We never do, because we see him as a monster who should be locked away, not for his own safety, but for ours.

    Are you sure he couldn’t?

    • I do not have a clue if he could or couldn’t.

      It would be interesting to know if there are any historical instances in which the person committing a violent act like Phillip was able to live any semblance of a normal life. The circumstances would have been unique because of the quick default to “locking up the monster” you refer to. It has been a part of our story-telling for sure as exemplified in stories like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But are there stories of survivors and thrivers?

      yes, what I wonder about the most is how would Phillip thrive? How does he survive his own aftermath?

      As an old high school teacher I have seen some tragic situations throughout the years in our own community and these cases continue to be an interest of mine.

      As to the “forming” brain–there is much to be learned for sure. My myth and symbol class is presently studying the stories of the ancient Greeks and we are having a speaker come in to talk about brain development as it relates to impulsivity. Students will look at the myths involving the young impulsive males in the myths of Phaethon, Bellerophon, Otus and Ephialtes. It will be interesting to hear the discussions.

      I wonder if we have very many people in the medical field who are passionate about these cases?

  2. Are you sure that Phillip Chism could ever really live a normal productive life in society after doing such a horrific thing? What he did is not the same as experimenting with drugs, vandalism and stealing. Far from it. You will need to tell me what it would look like before I could ever wrap my mind around it.

Leave a Comment