When the father kills the mother: a psychoanalyst on dealing with traumatized children

Interview | Psychoanalyst on childhood trauma

When the father kills the mother

ons 04.05.22 | 12:18 | Of Efthymis Angeloudis

When the father kills the mother: a psychoanalyst on dealing with traumatized children
Picture: dpa icon image / Anthony Anex

About one-fifth of the murder victims in Germany are killed by their partner or ex-partner. Such is also the case in Pankow, where a man apparently killed his former partner. Children who suffer are often left behind. What to do with them?

A 42-year-old man is said to have murdered his wife, who was divorced, on the streets of Berlin-Pankow with a knife on Friday. The woman, mother of six children, died at the scene. The children of the dead between the ages of three and 13 are in the custody of the authorities.

As the father kills the mother, the world collapses for children. You lose both parents at the same time. Questions, insecurities, and guilt remain, which may impair their development, including infant development.

Renate Schepker, board member of the German Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy (DGKJP), explains in an interview what obstacles they have to deal with and how authorities and relatives should react.

To person

Professor Renate Schepker.  (Source: DGKJP)


Prof. Dr. Renate Schepker

is a doctor for child and adolescent psychiatry and psychotherapy, psychoanalyst and board member of DGKJP. From 2005 to 2021, Schepker was Chief Physician in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Weissenau, Ravensburg.

rbb | 24: Mrs Schepker, in the middle of Pankow, stabbed a 42-year-old man apparently to her former partner last Friday. About one-fifth of the murder victims in Germany are killed by their own partner. Children often stay behind. What happens to them so soon after such an action? Where do they live?

Renate Schepker: It will be awarded by the court. First and foremost, the Youth Office has a duty of care. This means that the children will be cared for if both parents are absent. And that is the case here. The youth service then has the task in an incredibly short time to check who is possibly suitable from the relatives? As a starting point, there are also conflicts between the perpetrator’s family and the victim’s family.

Most of the children are cared for by relatives and mostly by the families of the victims. The youth offices generally think it makes sense to let siblings gather and hand over the children to relatives rather than to family or youth institutions.

In such cases, however, you need professional advice to assess how much support a child needs and whether the host family can provide this support at all. Or if there are many children, it can only do so for the older ones or only for the younger ones. It must basically be decided within a very short time, professionally and calmly.

If children live with relatives, then they are not further burdened by crime from the family environment?

They are less burdened by the deed than by the grief of the relatives. Although it is the paternal relationship, they have also lost someone. In the end, the perpetrators usually end up in jail for life.

One must not take from the children their loyalty to the father / perpetrator. Children always have loyalty and relationships, both to mom and dad. This is often forgotten in the families of the victims, with the grandparents, because the anger and grief is so great.

The literature says that children lose both parents at this point, in different ways, and that children develop PTSD one hundred percent. It is an extreme trauma to lose a loved one, such as one’s own mother, in an act of violence. Of course, it’s worse if your father committed this offense because you have a relationship with both of them.

Are children being evaluated after such an action to see how they can best support them? Is this mandatory?

Such a thing is not obligatory. The children are not assessed either. The term is hung way too high, but they are more often with. In Germany, we now have trauma outpatient clinics nationwide or at least regionally responsible child and adolescent psychiatric clinics, but also practices. And I know from my practice that even the police and the youth office demand investigations together. What did the children know? What did you hear? Who witnessed what? And are the children stressed?

What are children’s reactions depending on their age to this action?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is always a serious disorder that is also at risk of becoming chronic and requires treatment. It is only after a certain amount of time that you can see if it really is. But the chances of it really turning into a chronic disorder are very high.

This manifests itself differently in children. The younger the children, the more they fall back to earlier stages of development, the more weakened they are in their ability to play and in their further development, including language development.

The older the children, the more they already have typical adult symptoms. This means they get typical nightmares, reverberation experiences, flashback situations, being intimidated by every siren or ambulance they see. And then the memories come out.

It is very important that the naturally occurring mourning processes are also positively supported, that every child has an adult to look after them at the funeral, that they can also attend, that nothing is avoided to pseudo-protect the children, but that there is enough room for mourning, to scream and cry and be angry and everything that goes with it.

It is often assumed that children are too young to perceive their mother’s murder or to be able to remember it. Is it correct?

As soon as children can perceive, they perceive the burden. I was personally introduced to a child who was only two years old. This two-year-old child then later clearly developed post-traumatic symptoms and noticed something; although it was not so far in language development that it could have told much.

It is very difficult with infants who are difficult to explore, question or investigate. But, of course, babies also express discomfort. In the form of screaming, eating disorders, sleep disorders, adjustment disorders.

Of course, changing environment or caregiver also makes a difference for infants. But one can not do much to help in a dispute between parents. Larger children can do this very well and are actually very sensitive to tensions in the parental home.

And how do older children handle a murder in the family?

The children are severely irritated, existentially insecure and have a wide range of symptoms. Most of them show something like regression in the beginning. That is, they cling to adults, they seek protection, they seek security. And it is very important that this security is established very quickly. In the sense of reliability, ie not transplants for different care.

What is the relationship between these children and their father?

This varies greatly depending on the relationship with the father in advance and how involved the father was in childcare.

It also depends on the individual child’s level of development and how long conflicts have existed in the family and how open they have been to children. I can also imagine a constellation where the child was more biased towards the father. However, a child will not be able to understand that a father would do such a thing, but still have an emotional connection with the father.

Should contact with the father be maintained?

No contact will be possible in connection with custody and investigation. You can explain that to a child. It is my experience that a child’s appointed guardian must decide whether the contact should be interrupted completely.

It can be very helpful therapeutically that a child can also express rejection or feelings or anger towards the father, even if it did not have a particularly good relationship with him. The meetings take place in any way.

As a rule, however, I would recommend in such a situation that there is a moratorium in the beginning, ie a time when the children are first given the opportunity to sort out their emotions and also prepare this with experts.

Does the trauma show up in these children’s adult lives?

When treatment does not succeed, or has simply taken place over an inadequate period, there are injuries that extend into adulthood. What happens most often is that concentration disorders and learning disorders occur and that school grades cannot be achieved as they would have been possible.

There are children who regularly have so-called anniversary reactions on the day of death, where you have to think about how best to make that day go by. There are children who experience new obstacles in their career choices. And also children who later feel limited in their choice of partner and are not well able to develop loving relationships.

If a disorder lasts a long time, it is possible that the children will be affected, but that is not the rule. These children are not doomed to suffer for the rest of their lives. There are a few sensitive children, perhaps children who have been slightly traumatized or experienced violence before, who are then particularly susceptible to a severe form of the disorder.

Thank you for the interview!

The interview was conducted by Efthymis Angeloudis

Contributed by Efthymis Angeloudis

Leave a Comment