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Children and Firesetting: What Should You Do?

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Dr. Michelle Golland: The recent story of the mother who had her 5-year-old mock-arrested for setting fires made the many misconceptions about children and firesetting clear to me.

Kid holding match with fire

I empathize with the fear and frustration this mom must have been feeling, but how she handled the situation was, in my opinion, not the best way to deal with this very dangerous behavior.

Children who are preoccupied with fire and firesetting may have many reasons for this type of acting out. They may be angry and looking for attention. Some set fires as a cry for help in a family where there may be abuse or neglect. The child may also have impulse-control problems. "Conduct disorder" is the most prevalent diagnosis in children and adolescents who engage in repeated firesetting.

According to a 2001 study by the National Association of State Fire Marshals, juvenile firesetting is a leading cause of arson nationwide. Children account for more than 50 percent of those arrested for this type of crime. Most of these kids are teenagers, not kindergartners.

Normal Fire Curiosity
Forty to 60 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 12 play with matches and are interested in fire. There are three broad categories that describe a child's normal attraction to fire:

1) Fire interest (occurs when children are asking questions about fire and how it works)
2) Fire play (occurs when children model fire-related activities, such as playing fireman)
3) Firesetting (occurs when children ask parents to help light a candle or a fireplace)

Each of these categories demonstrates the normal development of fire interest in children. When each of these stages is met with appropriate adult acknowledgment, parents can facilitate a healthy understanding and respect for fire.

According to the study, children who anticipated being punished for playing with fire were far less likely to engage in fire play than those who didn't expect to be punished for such behavior. Also, those children who had access to incendiary devices or had responsibilities involving fire were more likely to engage in firesetting. If you have a child who has set a fire before, you must keep all matches and lighters locked up and out of their reach.

In listening to the story of the mother in Florida, I thought there were a few interesting things that came to light. Her son had stopped a fire in their home a year ago and was given a tour of the local fire station as a result. He was honored for his bravery and fire-safety awareness.  In an interview, his mom also mentioned that her neighborhood had recently suffered damage due to teenagers setting fires. It made me wonder if her son had become psychologically preoccupied with fire due to these two incidents. He may have liked the attention that he had received when he stopped the fire, so in his young mind the idea of putting out another fire (even if he started it) would give him the same positive emotional response from his mother and the firemen.

There are four types of firesetters, and four types of treatments:

1) Curiosity firesetters set fires because they have the means and are curious. The treatment is nonpunitive fire-safety education in an entertaining format.

2) Crisis firesetters set fires due to stress and poor impulse-control. The treatment is nonpunitive fire-safety education with a focus on the seriousness of the act and the potential consequences. If a crisis firesetter repeats the act, then cognitive emotional psychotherapy by a trained therapist is necessary.

3) Delinquent firesetters set fires due to anger and revenge. The treatment is education by law enforcement, presenting graphic images of fires and burn victims. Parents and children should be made aware of the financial penalties of arson as well.

4) Pathological firesetters deliberately set fires due to anger and revenge, with the desire to damage property or cause injury. The treatment may include inpatient psychiatric care, with behavioral modification and pharmacological treatment as well.

The child in Florida who was mock-arrested would most likely fall into either the "curiosity" or "crisis" firesetter category. The mother may have stopped his behavior for now with the fear and shame she put him through, but I worry that if she doesn't address the underlying reason why he is so preoccupied with fire and firesetting -- even after her attempts to punish him before the mock-arrest -- this may be a behavior that reappears later on in his life.

If your child is preoccupied with fire in a way that causes you concern, contact your local fire station and see if they have any programs that are designed to deter children from firesetting. Parental action is key to preventing this type of dangerous behavior, but you don't need to have your kids handcuffed!

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6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous May 25, 2010, 10:31 AM

I use to do this when I was younger. However, I did have enough sense not to do it inside or around anything that would cause an all out inferno. I just found it to be entertaining. I think the mother did what she could think of, yet I do agree with this article that she really should try to find the core issue that drives her child. I am not the childs mother and I don’t judge her for her actions. I just wish her and all the families out there dealing with this type of potentially destructive behavior the best!

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