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The Informed Parent

Is Your Child a Fire Bug?

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Feb. 12, 2007

What is the correlation between youngsters setting fires and their future behavioral problems? This is a question parents and pediatricians alike face as they review their children's activities, both positive and negative.

According to the September 2006 article in the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr. McKay and colleagues noted that juvenile fire involvement posed significant threat to the health and well-being of children and the communities in which they live. In North America billions of dollars annually are lost in property, along with hundreds of deaths and thousands of burn victims, as the result of juvenile fire setting. Young children in particular are at risk for burns. They are less skilled than older children in extinguishing or escaping fires that they have set. Many children and adolescents who become involved in fire setting do so on multiple occasions. Juvenile fire setters are at risk for non-fire setting offenses as well.

Fire setting is one of the criterion noted in the diagnoses of both conduct disorder and pyromania. It should be known, however, that not all children diagnosed with conduct disorder set fires, nor do all children who set fires have conduct disorder. There is consensus among experts that heightened interest in fire is a crucially important issue when understanding the onset and maintenance of fire setting behavior. This also holds true to heightened interest in other psychiatric disorders such as pathological gambling, kleptomania and paraphilias.

A prospective study of adult arsonists concluded that fire setting is an act different from either violent or nonviolent offending. Those most at risk of fire setting as adults also set fires as children.

Curiosity may be an important risk factor in identifying childhood fire setting and adult arson. Family reports of unusual interest in fires was the variable that best discriminated fire setting and non-fire setting offenders. It was concluded that children who set fires seemed to think about them in two different ways:

  1. those who were thought to reflect curiosity as a motive
    (the child thought the fire was positive or fun or he was experimenting or curious about the fire)
  2. those who were felt to use anger as a motive for the fire setting behavior
    (the child set the fire after an argument with someone, or after a family argument)

Children who rated high as being curious showed greater psychopathology and higher rating on scales of fire setting risk. Children who ranked high in anger as a motive for fire setting did not differ substantially from children who rated low in anger on general psychopathology scales. Therefore, an interest in fire may be an important factor rather than anger in understanding a child's fire setting behavior.

Experts concluded that a heightened interest and curiosity in fire is a significant predictor of the frequency and intensity of participants' fire involvement. It is also a predictor of fire setting recidivism in the future. Although a child may have conduct problems as well as fire setting behaviors, it is the interest in fire setting that seems to sustain.

In the future, understanding the pathways that lead to pathological fire setting could open new avenues of primary prevention and intervention for these behaviors in children and adolescents. See your child's pediatrician for more information and intervention.

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