Childhood Trauma As The Biggest Drive Of Serial Killers

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Australia is one of the luckiest countries in the world, we feel it is a safe place. Gun laws are in place to keep us safe but are we really? Australian gun laws have prevented many homicides – but Australia has had some of the worst cases of serial killings in history. This puts us all at risk of psychopathic behaviour.

In order for us to prevent serial killings we need to look further into the psychology of psychopaths to understand what drives them to kill other people, especially in the gruesome and disgusting ways that some of them do. In America, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) profiler Jim Clemente has said, “Genetics loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their experiences pull the trigger”.1

What is childhood trauma

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as- the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects. 2Childhood trauma can occur when a child witnesses or experiences overwhelming negative experiences in childhood.

  • Trauma from something done to a child which can be: sexual/physical or emotional abuse at home or elsewhere.
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence in family or home.
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence in the community eg: civil unrest or war, refugee or asylum seeker trauma.
  • Trauma from something that doesn’t happen, eg: emotional or physical neglect and:
  • Trauma because a child’s parent or caregiver is affected by their own trauma. This can mean they are unable to meet their child’s emotional needs, but often these parents have good intentions.
  • Their own trauma stops them from connecting securely to their child, which limits the child bonding or attaching securely.
  • A parent who abuses substances eg. alcohol and/or drugs. A parent who is in prison, or the separation of parents through events such as divorce.

Tragic events such as a car accident, or a particularly severe natural disaster (like a hurricane, for example) can take a psychological toll on children as well. On-going stress in a child’s life, such as living in a violent neighbourhood, or being the victim of bullying can be traumatic, even if it just feels like daily life to an adult.3 If it is not dealt with in a proper manner, the child can be left mentally scarred resulting in disillusion, obsession and anger management problems.4

How does childhood trauma affect adult development

Adults who experience significant trauma as children are more likely to develop “victimhood” thinking. This makes the person believe that he/she is a victim. Victimhood thinking is only of many aftereffects of childhood trauma. People who were mistreated as children may also become passive and submissive. This is usually shown through failing to self-express themselves, being self-defensive and bottling up emotions. 5This can really affect the victim who has experienced trauma and their relationships in the future.

Being submissive can result in the attraction of parasitic individuals who exploit and take advantage of others. Individuals who are still struggling with unresolved childhood trauma and adopt the behaviours above are likely to attract abusive partners or spouses. Adults who were exposed to childhood trauma are considerably more vulnerable to experiencing depression. Depression has the power to instigate both emotional and physical problems.

What are the characteristics of a serial killer?

According to criminologist Doctor Adrian Raine, both biological and social factors contribute to the making of a serial killer. It has been found that many serial killers have similar emotional development issues and have a strong tendency towards anti-social behaviour as children.

Infancy is one of the most significant stages in the development of a human. The first twelve months are critical to the development of emotions such as remorse and affection. If a child does not receive adequate attention and physical touch during this time they may suffer significant personality disorders in the future.

There may be signs that the child has psychotic behaviour by the age of two. The infant then develops a sense of only itself which is indicated by the absence of a range of emotions such as sympathy, remorse, and affection.

What happens in the development of a child in the very early years, can also be key to a range of factors which potentially form the behaviours of a serial killer. Serial killers were commonly isolated from their peers as children and many suffered from weight problems, stutters and learning problems such as Dyslexia.

Due to bullying, many serial killers began to possess “secret aggressive fantasies”. Many serial killers start out as arsonists and torture or kill small animals like squirrels, birds, cats, and dogs without showing remorse. Serial killers kill to control other people’s lives. It is common that children with these traits felt like small animals are the only lives they have control over. Childhood trauma has also been linked to serial killers and studies have revealed a number of significant statistics supporting the idea that mental and physical trauma may have long-lasting effects upon an individual. Serial killers often lack control, as well as other critical characteristics of a law-abiding citizen.

Types of Childhood Trauma

Physical Abuse is defined as a physical injury inflicted upon the child with cruel and/or malicious intent. Physical abuse can be the result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child physically.

Sexual Abuse is defined as a form of child abuse in which an adult or older adolescent uses a child for sexual stimulation. Forms of child sexual abuse include engaging in sexual activities with a child (whether by asking or pressuring or by other means), indecent exposure (of the genitals), child grooming, child sexual exploitation or using a child to produce child pornography.

Psychological Abuse is defined as any confirmed or suspected ongoing/sustained act or omission by a parent or other caregiver that deprives a child of basic age-appropriate needs and thereby results, or has reasonable potential to result, in physical or psychological harm.

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Neglect is defined as a form of child abuse and is a deficiency in meeting a child’s basic needs, including the failure to provide adequate health care, supervision, clothing, nutrition, housing as well as their physical, emotional, social, educational and safety needs. Society generally believes there are necessary behaviours a caregiver must provide in order for a child to develop physically, socially, and emotionally. Causes of neglect may result from several parenting problems including mental disorders, substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, and poverty.10

8 Serial killers with a history of childhood trauma

Richard Ramirez, known as “The Night Stalker” from El Paso Texas, raped and brutalised more than two dozen people and was found guilty of murdering 13 people in San Francisco and Los Angeles over a two year period in the mid-1980s. Ramirez had a disturbed childhood, enduring brutal beatings by his father. Ramirez was also exposed to both violence and drugs by his older cousin, Michael, who had recently returned from Vietnam and showed him pictures of women he claimed to have mutilated, raped and murdered. After a fight, Michael shot and killed his own wife in front of Ramirez and ordered him not to tell anyone.11

The serial killer duo, Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas were believed to have murdered hundreds of people were both victims of physical and psychological abuse, peculiarly they were made to dress up as young girls and beaten. Ottis Toole commited his furst muder at 14, after being picked up by a travelling salesman who forced him to have sex. Toole ran over the man with his own car.

Charles Manson was responsible for the murder of 8 months pregnant, Sharon Tate and seven others in 1969. His mother, Kathleen Maddox gave birth to Manson at the age of 16 and was arrested several times, first for robbery when Manson was only a young child. She was also reportedly an alcoholic with a tendency for theft and was known for disappearing on benders. Manson never knew his father. During his youth, he spent time with relatives in boys schools where he claimed to be raped by another student.

Aileen Wuornos murdered at least seven middle-aged men in the short period of 1989 and 1990 while working as a sex worker along the national highways of Georgia and Florida. Wuornos was born to a teenage mother and a schizophrenic father who committed suicide in prison after a child molestation conviction. Her grandparents raised her. Wuornos claims she was the victim of extensive sexual abuse by her grandfather and possibly others. At the age of just 14, Aileen gave birth to a child who she claims was fathered by her brother in a home for unwed teens. Her grandma died of complications from long-term alcoholism and Wuornos was thrown out of her home.

Mary Bell was a Brittish Serial Killer born in Glasgow, Scotland. She shared a one-room house with her mother as a young girl and would witness her mother (a prostitute), engage in acts with her clients often in the same room as Mary slept. Her mother made attempts to Mary at a young age but instead realised that there was extra money to be made if she prostituted her daughter.

Edmund Kemper was an American serial killer born in Burbank California. He murdered several members of his own family and six young women in Santa Cruz, California throughout the 1970s. His parents divorced when he was 9 years old and his alcoholic mother blamed him for the divorce.His mother was overly critical of Edmund and forced him to live in the basement of the house so he couldn’t be with his sisters.

From a young age Edmund fanitised killing his mother as he hated women and turned to torturing cats to release his frustration. At 15 years old he was sent to live with his grandparents on their farm and they had his rifle confiscated as he would not stop killing animals. With the frustration of having his rifle confiscated he turned his rage onto his grandparents, shooting them to death.

Donald Gaskins also known as “Pee Wee”, gained his nickname from being very small which he was bullied for his whole life. As a child he suffered abuse and neglect. His mother would have many boyfriends during his childhood and they would beat him. He also suffered from night terrors and became a bedwetter.

Pedro Lopez was a Colombian serial killer who claimed to have murdered over 300 victims between Peru and Ecuador but was only sentenced to prison for killing 80 girls. His mother caught him at just 8 years old, assaulting his sister and he was removed from the family home. Alone and vulnerable at a young age, Lopez was picked up by a man, taken to an abandoned house and repeatedly assaulted. At age 12 he was enrolled into a school of orphans where his teacher sexually assaulted him too.


  • 66% of known serial killers were raised with the mother as the dominant figure
  • 42% of convicted serial killers suffered from physical abuse as children
  • 74% suffered from psychological abuse
  • 29% of serial killers were found to be ‘accident prone’ which means they could be suffering from head trauma (head trauma refers to any damage to the scalp, skull, or brain caused by injury)


A strong correlation between childhood trauma and the development of a serial killer can be made.

Not all abused children turn into serial killers, many get help and use the horrible situation to grow and learn from their parents mistakes. There is no theory to explain the psychology nor the actions of serial killers. However, there are a great deal of criminologists researching the topic and attempting to further understand and discourage such a criminal offence.

The development of these offenders personalities are proven to begin at infancy for many and continues through childhood and into adulthood. A study was conducted on 50 serial killers around the world and the information that was found was that childhood abuse was more common in lust serial killers and the data showed that a much higher percentage of serial killers were abused as children than the population in general.

As not all serial killers have experienced childhood trauma and there is no scientific evidence that trauma is the reason these criminals do what they do. But childhood trauma may and can definitely contribute to the making of these serial killers. With further research and professional knowledge in this area, the key to understanding what makes a serial killer may be just around the corner.

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