The daily reports of murders are bad enough but I think that people are struck with a particular horror when they read of parents killing their own children, especially when the children are young, before killing themselves. It has the effect of infuriating me and making me wonder why, if they think that their lives are so bad, such people not simply kill themselves without taking innocent children with them. Of course, people who commit such horrendous acts are clearly in a highly disturbed state of mind and are not thinking rationally in the first place so we should not expect them to think like others would. But still, there must be some reason that drives them to do something so awful.
A 2005 study looked at the reasons why such things happen. You can read the journal article here.
Several recent cases of filicide, child murder by parents, have drawn national attention to this archetypal tragedy. Specific motives for filicide were initially described by Resnick, classified as (1) altruistic, (2) acutely psychotic, (3) accidental filicide (fatal maltreatment), (4) unwanted child, and (5) spouse revenge filicide. Altruistic filicide is murder committed out of love to relieve the real or imagined suffering of the child. Altruistic filicide may be associated with suicide. For example, a mother who is suicidal may not be willing to leave her child motherless in a “cruel world.” Distinct from this, acutely psychotic filicide occurs when a parent in the throes of acute psychosis (e.g., experiencing command hallucinations) kills his or her child with no comprehensible motive. Fatal maltreatment filicide may occur as a result of child abuse, neglect, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Parents committing spouse revenge filicides kill children in a specific attempt to make the spouse suffer. Furthermore, filicide may occur within the context of familicide, the extermination of the entire family.
Resnick reported a “relief of tension” after altruistic and acutely psychotic filicides. The expulsion of energy after the child’s death explains why some parents who had intended filicide-suicide did not complete the act of suicide. Conversely, other parents, “upon realization of the gravity of their act…may attempt suicide even if it was not planned”
The authors also hypothesized that motives for filicide-suicide would most likely be altruistic or acutely psychotic, because parents who had fatally abused a child, had an unwanted child, or sought revenge on a spouse would be less likely to kill themselves after having killed their children. In all three of these scenarios, the offending parents would be less likely to merge their own fate with that of their children. The parent may fail to commit suicide because, in the case of fatal maltreatment, the child usually has been neglected or abused but unintentionally killed; in the case of an unwanted child, there is a lack of identification with the child; and in the case of spouse revenge, there may be a desire to remain alive to take pleasure in the vengeance.
The sample of 30 had twice as many fathers (20) as mothers (10). There were other gender differences.
The fathers (mean age ± SD, 38.2 ± 8.8 years), were significantly older than the mothers (mean age, 31.8 ± 5.7 years, t = −2.369, p < .026). … Sixty-five percent of the fathers attempted to kill their wives as well as their children, whereas no mothers attempted to kill their husbands. In all, 55 percent of the fathers, but none of the mothers, attempted familicide, that is, annihilation of the entire family.
If I had to guess, I would have said that acutely psychotic filicide was the most common type followed by spouse revenge filicide. But I would have been wrong.
The majority (70%) of the motives for filicide-suicide were identified as altruistic, that is, the parents (90% of the mothers and 60% of the fathers) were motivated by the desire to alleviate real or imagined suffering in their children. The altruistic category was subdivided into psychotic altruistic and non-psychotic altruistic. For example, a psychotic altruistic motive would include taking a child’s life because of the delusional belief that the child was in acute danger of a worse fate. Alternately, a non-psychotic altruistic case would be taking the life because of a belief that a severely medically ill child would be better off.
That altruism was the most common motive for killing one’s children surprised me. Of course the total sample size is small because filicide-suicide is relatively rare.