Juvenile Firesetting

Godzilla
Drawing produced by child being evaluated for firesetting

Fire sometimes symbolic of internal chaos

NEW BRAINTREE, MA  It was once believed that playing with fire was a normal, developmental curiosity and could be expected.  Fire is a tantalizing and visually captivating phenomena.  It was once espoused that firesetting was symprtomatic of psychopathology that included cruelty to animals and enuresis.  This triad of emotional indicators was thought to symbolize unmet needs and perhaps frustrated infantile drives states.  The current reality suggests that errant use of fire material represents one of the most lethal expressions of childhood emotional turmoil and unbridled conduct.  Depending upon the age of onset using fire as an expression of internalized conflict suggests a serious emotional disorder in need of expert assessment and treatment.  The drawings of some children reveal an chaotic emotional development that may be portrayed by the violence among characters as shown in the drawing here.  Each animal is drawn shooting fire or electric rays. The two main characters shown are Godzilla and Raptor who are engaged in a confrontation.  Each character brings his crew to help eliminate the opponent using fire and electricity.

Exposure to fire and role models

What happens when the child turns one? His parents plop down a birthday cake with a burning candle set alight.  While singing Happy Birthday the toddler sits transfixed as the waxy, flickering bulb melts before his eyes.  Some believe early exposure to fire coupled with significant role models who use and misuse fire material cast the first spark of interest in fire.  Curiosity in fire may be a normal childhood attraction.  But in most cases the normal enchantment with fire represents one of many normal wonders that parents may introduce to children as they grow and mature.  Meanwhile, just as one would not give a loaded firearm to a toddler, one cannot permit an unsupervised child to handle matches or lighters.  The interest in fire becomes a parents responsibility to nurture and polish with age.  This normal interest then foments in homes where the prevailing affective conditions permit – decreased emotional warmth, access to fire starting materials, an absent parent, and frequently domestic violence.  The inconsistent and unpredictable exposure to violence contributes to excessive and unpredictable behavior.

Psychologist are frequently asked to differentiate children who light fires because of normal curiosity versus those who light fire out of a more pathognomic underpinning.  I was once asked to evaluate a surviving 3-year old who lit a house fire killing his 4-year old cousin.  The tragedy of this case transcended 4 generations living in one household and rendered them emotionally overwrought. “Just as we will not put a loaded firearm into the hands of an untrained child, so too must we guard against the unskilled, misuse of fire”, according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Juvenile arson is a serious crime and has life threatening consequences.  The cost to insurance companies is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars across the country.  The loss of life even more costly in terms of the human toll enacted upon families where children light fires.  The truth is that all “fire play” may be hazardous and life threatening when fire gets out of control so access to fire materials like lighters and matches should be carefully limited.  Just as parents kid proof their house when the baby is born so too should they make a house or apartment fire safe from the curiosity of a precocious child.

The most ominous case of juvenile fireplay occur in homes with one or both parents absent from regular, direct nurturing of the child. Why children choose fire play over other forms of acting out is not clear. There tends to be two peak ages where the incidence of fire play is peaked: 3-5 years and 12-15 years. It is far more common in boys than girls but girls tend to light fires that include personal belongings, Any use of combustibles or incendiary devices is highly significant and requires professional assistance. Programs such as that offered by YOU, Incorporated in Central Massachusetts have clinicians who understand the dynamics of fireplay and can help families deal with the risks. See the link below for a sensitive look at one particular story from the midwest.

http://www.traumaburn.org/prevention/seanstory/misuse/index.shtml

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