Behavior regulation and fire: an overlooked sign of inner conflict

WESTBOROUGH, MA March 1, 2017 Playing with fire can be the most dangerous of all childhood behavior and a sinister expression of rage among adults with severe psychopathology. It is often overlooked as an expression of emotional problems among persons of interest with whom the police encounter. Early in my career at Boston City Hospital I was a member of the juvenile arson program that evaluated children who were referred with fire setting as the primary sign of distress.  I worked with Inspector Al Jones of the Boston Fire Department and Dr. Rita Dudley at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology (CMTP) at BCH.  Rita was instrumental in growing the program into a regional center for the assessment of juvenile arson.  Inspector Al Jones of the Boston Fire Department was our liaison with front line investigators.  It was a fast paced program that got kids in for assessment and treatment quickly because we knew that some of the children we were seeing were at high risk of repeated fire setting and some were merely curious with their match play.

During my fellowship year I evaluated 49 children who were sent to us by fire departments in the Boston area.  I worked with Dr. David K. Wilcox, a Boston area practitioner and Dr. Robert Stadolnik, then at Westwood Child and Family Services, as key colleagues in my development and expertise in this area of psychology.  Bob published Drawn to Flame, a book about childhood firesetting in 2000.  The key for those of us involved in the program was to identify individuals who were most at risk of repeated fire setting and determine the underlying cause of their immense emotional turmoil.

The expression of underlying anger using fire is a malevolent sign conflict and detachment – sometimes psychosis and delusional thinking.  It represents inner conflict and emotional turmoil as I mention in a post published in 2013. Although quite rare, fire as a symbolic expression of delusions is documented. More commonly though, fire is a signal of emotional dysfunction in the life and family of a child or adult who is suspected of arson.  To what extent it represents underlying trauma requires a comprehensive psychological assessment and careful history. In the most dangerous cases, hospital care is required for the safety of the child or adult with firesetting behavior.  In the adult, arson for hire or an insurance scam represents a large proportion of those arrested for fire-related behavior.

Fire as an expressive behavior

Fire is instrumental in the expression of culture, ritual and is symbolic of great emotion and excitement. Its use at public events, celebrations and parties is commonplace.  People enjoy the dramatic sensory experience associated with seeing and feeling fire.  At what point is it a sign of conflict or burgeoning emotion? The expression of anger may be something as subtle as burning one’s own clothing in a small ceremonial fire in the living room fireplace.  Who would do that you might ask and why?  One example is a person who has lost a large amount of weight may exemplify the accomplishment by burning the larger clothes.  It is a symbolic way of saying goodbye to the old habits that may have caused the weight gain. Ok – that is plausible.  Another person might burn clothing as a way of undoing internalized feelings of shame and self-hatred engendered by early childhood trauma.  Also a plausible explanation of hidden psychopathology that often has deadly results. Some firesetting may represent a preoccupation with flame as an expression of fear and dread coming from exposure to violence within a dysfunctional home. This is a larger subset of persons than one might think and represents a sign of growing emotional lability.

The question for psychologists and police officers is how to identify persons of interest with the emotional coping deficits that place them at risk for using fire as an expression of their feelings and conflict. “The underpinnings of violence are often present in some form or another and may be represented by a marginalized demeanor and extremist views” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Psychological Services at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA.

“The inconsistent and unpredictable exposure to violence contributes to excessive and unpredictable behavior” according to Michael Sefton in a 2013 blog post

The treatment model involves individual and group therapy to assit patients in the identification of inner emotions and feeling states.  I have worked with pediatric patients whose behavior is totally unregulated and unpredictable and yet when you ask them what they were feeling at the time of the fire they cannot tell you. Fire may result in a discharge of emotion like lightning. In the same way some persons are physically abusive – others set fires to release their strong emotions. The current reality suggests that errant use of fire material represents one of the most lethal expressions of underlying emotional turmoil and unbridled conflict in people. There are few programs equipped to understand and treat people with these behaviors and firesetting is often an exclusionary behavior  for entry into treatment programs everywhere.


Sefton, M. Juvenile Firesetting, blog post:  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/juvenile-firesetting/,  taken January 14,2017

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