Violence in the family is a major source of teen female violence. The future well-being of a society is directly linked to its ability to care for and educate its young. Families that cannot successfully care for their young, nurture the seeds of future violence and criminality. Until we learn this, we will continue to build more prisons at a much higher cost than treatment or prevention. Until we fully recognize and provide adequate services for the important parental task of caring for its young, we will not stop the cycle of violence.
Female violence and aggression is increasing. Steffensmeier and Haynie (2000) found that a history of economic disadvantage and social disorganization was associated with adult female homicide. Campbell (1993) suggests that women express violence in response to stress and frustration. Katherine Ramsland has proposed several reasons for aggression by women (Court TV Crime Library, 2005). Some work in partnership with boyfriends or husbands who beat them if they do not cooperate, some are impulsively violent, and some are methodically cruel. Elizabeth Epstein (2005) found that among the relationships of 109 alcoholic women, 61% reported some violence. In 23% of the couples, the woman was more violent and in 11% of the couples, the man was more violent. Feibert (1997) in an annotated bibliography points out that many studies have found that women are equally or more violent in their interpersonal relationships than men. Dobash et al., (1992) point out that female and male rates of spousal murder in the US are very similar, while the perpetrators of spousal abuse are predominantly male.
My study of female violence indicated that adult females with histories of aggression had moderate to severe behavior problems that began before the age of 13, assault of an authority figure, impulsivity, delinquency, running away from home, substance abuse, belief in the legitimacy of aggression as a means to an end, very poor or very good (superficial) social skills (glib), attachment problems, few pro-social peers, behavior problems at school, home or work, lack of success in school, job, or as a home maker, family violence and low warmth in the family of origin, lack of appropriate boundaries in family of origin or present family, and parent(s) with untreated or ineffectively treated psychiatric or substance abuse problems.
In addition to those traits, women with severe assaults that caused harm or death to another had escaped from a facility, run away from home, and bullying behavior. A third of those with chronic assaults lacked remorse, and had positive attitudes toward antisocial behavior, emotional displays that were flat or out of control, deviant peers, and excessive absenteeism from school or work in addition to the general characteristics cited above. Additionally it appears that the number and the severity of traumas experienced by a woman are associated with the number and severity of behavior problems a woman commits as a youth.
Females are most likely to kill a spouse (19% of victims of female homicide), a friend/acquaintance (17%), or a boyfriend or girlfriend (10%) and least likely to kill an employee/er (.1%) or a sibling (1%) (BJS). Twelve percent of US homicide offenders (BJS) and 12% of identified serial killers are female (Newton, 2000). The motive for 41% of female serial killers is money. Substance abuse is more likely to be involved when an abused woman murders her abusive male partner.
An example of female violence is Aileen Wuornos. She was born in Michigan in 1956. Aileen’s childhood was full of abandonment and despair, and the killings and molestations taking place around her as a youngster foreshadowed a life in prostitution and murder that would later unfold. Aileen was never able to form an attachment to a peer group nor have the capacity to formulate empathy for others. She ended up confessing to six murders, claiming and then refuting she committed them in self-defense.
Before Aileen even met her biological father, he served time in prison for molesting a child and later hung himself in his cell. Her mother left Aileen and her brother, Keith, with the children’s maternal grandparents when Aileen was only 4 years old. Having given birth to her children as a teenager, Aileen’s mother lamented that they were “crying, unhappy babies.” At age 6 Aileen suffered facial burns while setting fires with lighter fluid.
Aileen later revealed that she had sex with her brother at a young age (a claim that is not verified). She was often truant from school and was pregnant at age 14. In this same year, her grandmother went into violent convulsions and died-there was suspicion that Aileen’s grandfather was to blame.
Aileen soon entered a bleak existence of hitchhiking and prostitution, picking up along the way several charges of drunk and disorderly behavior and assault (Court TV’s Crime Library, 2005). She was later charged, convicted, and executed for the murder of six men with whom she had sex.
The research literature clearly shows that at least one source of female violence is the exposure to neglect, abuse and domestic violence as a child. Early identification and intervention into violent homes is essential to stop the cycle of family violence. This is not to excuse the behavior, but to prevent it in the future. Additionally, most mothers who kill their children are psychotic, under stress, isolated, have long histories of mental illness, and have been abused or exposed to domestic violence as children. We can no longer ignore these precursors. As a society, we must intervene early with therapy and family supports for all families exposed to domestic violence.
Dr. Kathryn Seifert is a psychotherapist with over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. Dr. Seifert has authored the CARE and numerous articles. She speaks nationally on mental health related topics and youth violence. She is an expert witness in the areas of youth and adult violence and sexual offending. Her latest book is coming soon: How Children Become Violent: Keeping your Kids out of Gangs, Cults, and Terrorist Organizations. For more information go to http://www.drkathyseifert.com