Children who Witness the Homicide of a Parent

Spencer Eth, Robert S. Pynoos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


The traumatic nature of a child's experience viewing catastrophic family violence is a relatively underreported area of exploration in psychiatry (e.g., Black and Kaplan 1988; Lystad 1986). This neglect is surprising given the frequency of its occurrence in the United States. For example, epidemiologic data suggest that in the city of Los Angeles alone there ere approximately 1000 criminal homicides each year, about half of which occur in the home and involve adults of child-bearing age as victims (MMWR 1986). A conservative estimate of the number of dependent children in Los Angeles exposed annually to the sight of lethal violence directed against a parent is 100-200. The figure for the entire United States would be greater by at least an order of magnitude. We are presenting detailed descriptive information gathered during the clinical psychiatric evaluation of a series of 55 children and adolescents, each of whom personally observed the killing of a parent by another person. Our assessment employed a specialized, semistructured interview technique developed explicitly for this purpose (Pynoos and Eth 1986), which was conducted acutely from hours to weeks after the violent event for most of the cases in order to study the child's immediate response. We also interviewed children and adolescents who had witnessed a parent's homicide years earlier in order to document the continued impact of that event. The findings from these research interviews contribute to our understanding of the nature of the child's experience of trauma, the salience of the issue of human accountability in acts of interpersonal violence, the influence of developmental phase on symptom expression, and the interaction of grief and trauma in childhood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)287-306
Number of pages20
JournalPsychiatry (New York)
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1994
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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