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Parricide: Definition & Cases

Instructor: Erica Hutton

Dr. Erica Hutton is a Criminal Psychologist & Profiler; she teaches collegiate courses in Psychology & Criminal Justice & holds a PhD in Criminal Justice.

When a child makes the decision to kill their parents, plots the execution and arrangement of the entire homicide, this is called parricide, parental homicide.

What is Parricide?

Parricide is a Latin phrase meaning the homicide of one's parents or another close relative within the family. For the purpose of this lesson, we will concentrate upon the killing of parents by their children. When only one parent is murdered, we classify and name the crime based on the gender of the parent killed. If the case of a mother's murder, we classify the crime as matricide, and in the case of a father's murder, the term is patricide. When both parents are murdered, the appropriate crime classification is parricide.

Prevalence

There is limited information about the prevalence of parricide because it is a rare type of murder. It is hard to find a large enough unbiased sample size with which to conduct research, meaning a major limitation is the lack of generalizable findings. Another way to look at this, however, is that it is incredibly fortunate that this crime is so uncommon; some estimates say that parricide makes up only 1-4% of all homicides.

In a 2007 meta commentary, Dr. Hillbr and Dr. Cipriano found some interesting tendencies related to gender. In general, parricide is usually committed by males and done to males (meaning son-on-father crime), but recently that trend has been shifting. Though the ratios change depending on the study cited, some generalizations we can make include:

  • sons kill their fathers more often than their mothers
  • sons kill their fathers more often than daughters kill their fathers

Other Statistics and Factors

What drives a child to kill a parent? In approximately 81% of matricide cases and 76% of patricide cases, the murders are a result of conflicted relationships and intense arguments. While most parricide offenders are white adult males that reside in their parents' home, media concentrate more on the adolescents that commit these types of crimes. This could be due to the fact that most adolescent offenders kill both parents while adults typically murder only one. The killing of both parents is considered especially horrifying, and this effect is compounded when the perpetrator is an adolescent.

The central conflict that drives adults to parricide is typically relationship conflict and argument coupled with mental illness. Adults are more likely to have planned the murder in advance. In adult males especially, there is a high likelihood of schizophrenia, though other mental disorders include psychotic and depressive disorders. Consider the following general characteristics for adult children:

sons who commit matricide sons who commit patricide
immature and passive less dependent
display schizophrenia display schizophrenia
mothers are controlling and demanding fathers are aggressive and abusive

daughters who commit matricide daughters who commit patricide
likely to display psychosis less likely to display psychosis
mothers are controlling and hostile fathers are tyrannical and often violent

In contrast, adolescent cases often involve severe physical abuse. A child that is being abused sometimes overcompensates and takes matters into their own hands either for self-protection or because they simply cannot withstand another day of the mistreatment, suggesting the crime is more likely to be spontaneous. Many trial juries have been faced with evidence of prior abuse and battering that children have endured which ultimately was the motive for murder.

adolescents who commit parricide
often in their teens with no psychosis
are motivated by long-term abuse but crime is spontaneous
more likely to kill stepparents than biological parents

We also observe differences in how adults versus adolescents commit the murder. Adults are less likely to use a firearm (occurring about 57% of the time) whereas adolescents use a firearm in 80% of parricides. Adolescents are also most likely to commit parricide in situations where the approach is completely non-confrontational in nature, using more covert or unsuspected methods to achieve the murder. This makes sense when you consider that adolescents are often in a position of less power and strength than his or her target. Female offenders of all ages are more likely to be overly violent, again likely because of perceptions of power and control.

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