Fire setting is one of the most complex and confounding delinquent acts performed by a child or teen. Reasons for the destructive behavior range from boredom to a desire to cause harm, with a multitude of causal factors at the root of fire setting, including poor parental supervision, broken families, peer pressure and abuse.
According to the most recent juvenile fire setting statistics, children are responsible for setting 50 percent of all fires; over 40 percent of juvenile firesetters are under age five and 70 percent are under age ten. Children account for approximately 50,000 fires per year in the U.S., causing an average of 80 deaths annually, 860 injuries and $235 million in property damage.
There are clear distinctions between fire setting, arson and pyromania:
- Fire setting: In general, fire setting is considered a behavioral conduct disorder as it is an impulsive act driven by the curiosity or boredom of unsupervised children. Playing with matches can begin anytime after age three. Most children in this group are between the ages of five to ten and do not understand the dangers of playing with fire. Juveniles in this group set an average of 2.5 intentional or accidental fires in their lifetimes. Motivations include attention seeking, sensation seeking and natural curiosity
- Arson: Arson is considered an act of vandalism, with malicious intent to destroy property as its motivation. The act of arson is considered an antisocial behavior and is commonly accompanied by other crimes or offenses such as violence, covering up other crimes, defying authority and more.Fifty-five percent of all arson arrests are juveniles under the age of 18, with about half of them under age 15. Five thousand minors are arrested for arson each year in the U.S.
- Pyromania: Pyromania is a very rare impulse control disorder that usually surfaces in childhood and is characterized by a compulsion to set fires as a tension relieving behavior. Among pyromaniacs, pathological fire setting is a deliberate, planned and persistent behavior. Ninety percent of children diagnosed with this condition are male and are responsible for about three percent of fires
Even with the serious impact juvenile fire setting has on the public, the problem often falls between the cracks. Mental health, insurance and government agencies seem to be ill-equipped to adequately manage this problem. Currently, there are about 150 firesetter treatment programs nationwide to offer juveniles some form of education and counseling. Some states have initiated a joint collaboration between fire departments, law enforcement, parents and psychiatric facilities. One such program is in Rhode Island, called the FireSafe Families Project.
Dr. John Boekamp is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the FireSafe program. He describes how some of the fire setters are attention seekers, some come from troubled homes and some suffer neglect or abuse. His program takes two primary treatment approaches, aversion therapy and satiation therapy.
Aversion therapy involves taking the fire setters to visit burn wards, talking to trauma surgeons or to sift through the ashes of burned homes hoping to make an impact and deter the children from repeating the offense.
Satiation therapy involves having children light hundreds of matches or to continuously flick a lighter until they are tired of the process and the excitement eventually becomes diminished.
Families often minimize or ignore the fire setting behaviors of children, making excuses for it or pretending it isn’t a problem. School officials, likewise, rarely report fires on campus like trash can fires, hoping not to attract negative attention in the community. This is a problem though as experts believe that all juveniles who have engaged in fire setting need intervention or 85 percent of them will continue to play with fire.
For help, the best place to start is the local fire department. They can provide age appropriate literature and provide referrals to professional counselors. Treatment often is determined after a mental health evaluation and/or interview is conducted. If the problem is deemed to be a conduct disorder, treatment methods may include anger management, problem-solving and communication skill building and aggression replacement training.
White River Academy, places an emphasis on character development in adolescent males with behavioral issues, offering life skills classes and community service-oriented programs to instill qualities that lead to a productive and successful life post-recovery. For questions about White River Academy, please call 866-520-0905.