Although Dahmer was doted upon as an infant and toddler by both parents, his mother was known to be tense, greedy for attention and argumentative with both her husband and her neighbors, and as her son entered first grade, Joyce Dahmer began to spend an increasing amount of her time in bed recovering from weakness, whereas Lionel was away from home much of the time as he continued his studies, being only able to spend brief periods of time with his son as even when at home he was required to care for his wife who reportedly would work herself into a state of anxiety over trivial matters simply to achieve appeasement from her husband. On one occasion, Joyce Dahmer attempted suicide from an overdose of the Equanil pills to which she had become addicted.
Dahmer himself recalled his early years of family life as being of "extreme tension" which he noted between his parents, whom he observed to be consistently arguing with each other. At school, he was observed to be both quiet and timid; one first grade teacher noted upon Dahmer's first grade report card that she observed Dahmer to be a reserved child whom she sensed to feel neglected. Nonetheless, he was regarded as a "quiet kid" by many of his peers. Although largely reserved and uncommunicative in grade school, Dahmer did have a small number of friends.
From an early age, Dahmer manifested an interest in animals. Friends later recalled Dahmer initially collected large insects, dragonflies and butterflies which he placed inside jars. Later, Dahmer — occasionally accompanied by one or more of his few friends — would collect animal carcasses from the roadside; these animals Dahmer would dismember either at home or in an expanse of woodland behind the family home. According to one friend, Dahmer would dismember these animals and store the parts in jars in the family's wooden toolshed, always explaining that he was curious as to how each animal "fitted together". In one instance, he is known to have impaled a dog's head upon a stake behind his house.
Dahmer's fascination with dead animals may have began when, at the age of four, he noted his father