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The number of adolescent firesetters has been growing each year, along with the psychological and financial damage they create. It is therefore essential that mental health professionals who work with adolescents be aware of the characteristics of firesetters. This study describes the individual and environmental factors that relate to the etiology and levels of firesetting. Specifically, it discusses different types of firesetters and their aggressive tendencies, internalizing problems, family dynamics, and sociability. Further, it explores the treatment of adolescent firesetters.
In the United States, fires set by children and adolescents are more likely than any other household disaster to result in death (National Fire Protection Association, 1999). It is estimated that, in 1998, fires set by children and adolescents resulted in 6,215 deaths, another 30,800 injuries, and 11 billion dollars in property damage (National Fire Protection Association, 1999). Given the impact of juvenile firesetting, it remains an understudied area.
The present paper explores the psychological and sociological factors that contribute to the initiation and continuation of firesetting in adolescents. In particular, it seeks to help clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals better understand the etiology and typology of juvenile firesetters. It also examines issues related to opportunities for effective mental health services with juvenile firesetters and improved communication between professionals who work with them.
Early investigations of juvenile firesetting relied on a psychoanalytic orientation (Kaufman, Heims, & Reisner, 1961; Lester, 1975; Rothstein, 1963; Yarnell, 1940). Yarnell's seminal study on firesetters examined 60 juveniles admitted to the Bellevue Hospital psychiatric ward in New York. Yarnell speculated that youths who set fires do so in order to gain power over adults. The neglectful nature of the relationship between mother and son was also emphasized. In addition, relationship issues were examined from the perspective of the father's profession, such as in the case of the youth whose father was a fire fighter.
More recently, Kolko (1985) concluded from a review of the literature that environmental circumstances, as well as personality characteristics, are related to firesetting and recidivism. In proposing their problem-behavior theory, Jessor and Jessor (1977,1984) asserted that most juvenile problem behaviors can be understood by examining the characteristics and experiences of the juvenile (individual factors) within the contexts of the larger society or culture (environmental factors). In addition, the attributes of the situation in which the problem behavior takes place must be examined (Jessor & Jessor, 1973). Jessor and Jessor (1973,1977) emphasized the dynamic nature of the interaction between the individual and his or her environment. Thus, to explain a problem behavior as complex as firesetting, both individual and environmental factors must be examined simultaneously (Magnusson & Endler, 1977).
Individual characteristics are determined by social and cognitive experiences, and entail values, self-expectations, beliefs, and orientations toward self and others (Jessor, Graves, Hanson, & Jessor, 1968). Environmental circumstances include supports, controls, models, and the expectations of others (Jessor & Jessor, 1984). Exploration of these factors and their relation to maladaptive behavior patterns (in this case, juvenile firesetting) can help educators and counselors design and implement prevention and intervention programs.
According to Patterson (1982), firesetting may occur at the end of the spectrum of antisocial symptomatology, which progresses from more frequent, overt problem behaviors, such as disobedience, to less frequent, covert behaviors, such as lying, stealing, and vandalism. Kolko and Kazdin (1991,1994) found that adolescent firesetters exhibit higher levels of hostility and aggression as compared with those who set fires at other ages. Williams (1998) reported that adolescent firesetters frequently commit a variety of crimes: forcible rape (11%), nonviolent sexual offenses (18%), and vandalism (19%).
Sensation seeking. Junger and Wiegersma (1995) examined mild deviance, including gambling, alcohol consumption, smoking, soft-drug use, shoplifting, and vandalism, which are also common examples of sensation-seeking behavior. Deviance was found to be related to leisure-time activities (and the lack thereof). The results were in accord with findings by Kolko and Kazdin (1988), which indicated that some youths engage in firesetting and other destructive behaviors as a result of boredom.
Social skills deficits. Juvenile firesetters have been found to have difficulty interacting with others, including family, peers, and teachers (Showers & Pickrell, 1987). Limited sociability, in turn, is likely to reduce the opportunity for these youths to develop normative socialization skills (Kazdin, 1990). This may affect their psychosocial stability, furthering firesetting tendencies and other maladaptive behaviors (Heaven, 1994; Kazdin, 1990; Levin, 1976).
Vandersall and Wiener (1970) asserted that young firesetters rarely have significant friendships. Juvenile firesetters also have been found to view themselves as loners. Some firesetters have indicated that they engage in fireplay to impress peers. Others have stated that they set fires because they do not have peers to play with, and firesetting is a way to pass the time (Blumenberg, 1981; Fineman, 1995; Kolko & Kazdin, 1986).
Teenagers are more likely than younger children to involve peers in their firesetting and to brag about their destructive behaviors. It has been theorized that some young adults initiate fireplay to gain a sense of control as they attempt to accommodate adult roles. Though firesetting among adolescents is often associated with maladaptive psychosocial patterns, by early adulthood most firesetting is identified as being pathological or criminal (Levin, 1976; Schwartzman et al., 1994).
Attention seeking. Attention-seeking behavior includes any negative action performed in order to attain a tangible reinforcer (Lee & Miltenberger, 1996). Luby, Reich, and Earls (1995) and Taylor and Carr (1994) found that children in neglectful environments were more likely than those in more traditional, supervised settings to engage in attention-seeking behavior. Attention seeking--the desire to provoke a reaction from parents, community members, local authorities, and emergency workers--is often a factor in juvenile firesetting (Schwartzman et al., 1994).
Fire-safety skills. Youths who accidentally set fires are likely to lack sufficient understanding of the danger of fireplay (Canter & Frizon, 1998; Lester, 1975). Many fire professionals believe that fire-safety education can reduce the recidivism rate among juvenile firesetters (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1996). In addition, psycho-educational interventions may reduce recidivism through the integration of fire-safety programs within educational, child care, and family welfare frameworks (Adler, Nunn, Northam, & Lebnan, 1994; Eisler, 1972).
Limited supervision. Kolko and Kazdin (1988,1991) found correlations between parental and child maladaptive behaviors. In reviewing the relationships between family dynamics and juvenile firesetting behaviors, Squires and Busuttil (1995) determined that a significant number of house fires were directly related to the activities of adults in the home. Poor supervision and a lax child-care environment were found to be better predictors of recidivism in children than were individual factors (see also Kolko & Kazdin, 1988; Showers & Pickrell, 1987). Moreover, adults who did not keep track of incendiaries in the home increased youths' access to them and the ability to set fires (Squires & Busuttil, 1995).
Early learning experiences. Learning experiences and cues can encourage firesetting. For example, exposure to fire at an early age may increase the likelihood that children will engage in maladaptive firesetting behaviors (Jackson, Glass, & Hope, 1987; Kolko & Kazdin, 1986, 1991; Yarnell, 1940). In addition, parents and other significant family members can serve as models in regard to the inappropriate use of fire.
Parental uninvolvement. Firesetting in many children is thought to be largely the result of a neglectful family environment (Gaynor & Hatcher, 1987). Macht and Mack (1968) have asserted that the family environment of the childhood firesetter is likely to be chaotic and to lack nurturing behaviors. Patterson (1982) has pointed out that the externalization of emotions through firesetting resembles the antisocial behaviors of adolescents who are victims of abuse and neglect.
Kolko and Kazdin (1994) found that access to incendiaries, lack of adolescent remorse, and lack of consequences for negative behavior (a form of parental uninvolvement) were associated with recidivism (i.e., multiple incidences of firesetting). Furthermore, Squires and Busuttil (1995) asserted that the fatalities connected with juvenile firesetting could be significantly reduced if abusive and neglectful behaviors by parents were reduced and involvement with children increased.
Parental pathology. Psychosocial maladjustment has been found to be related to family dysfunction (Bumpass, Fagelman, & Brix, 1983; Kazdin, 1990; Kolko & Kazdin, 1992), and some adolescents engage in destructive behaviors as a result of family problems. Saunders and Awad (1991) noted that adolescent firesetters are likely to experience parental separation, violence within the home, parental alcohol or drug abuse, or some form of physical or sexual abuse. Firesetters experience significantly more emotional neglect and physical abuse than do other children of similar socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds (Thomas & Grimes, 1994). Limited parenting skills may also have implications for firesetting. Counseling and other psychoeducational interventions (e.g., respite care, crisis intervention) may help a family to redefine roles and remedy additional environmental factors that lead to recidivism in firesetting youth (Jackson et al., 1987; Kolko & Kazdin, 1992).
Peer influence. Vandersall and Wiener (1970) reported that many teenagers receive incendiaries from peers. Moreover, juvenile firesetters differ in the peers they emulate (Kolko & Kazdin, 1986). Peers who smoke, peers who play with fire, and peer pressure to participate in firesetting can all be factors (Kolko & Kazdin, 1986). Conversely, some adolescents have indicated that they engage in fireplay because of limited involvement with others (Slavkin, 2000).
Stressful events. Many juvenile firesetters have difficulty dealing with everyday stressors (Stewart & Culver, 1982; Winget & Whitman, 1973). The significance of interpersonal stress for individual development cannot be underestimated (Bronfenbrenner, 1977). Stressful environmental circumstances, individual crises, and limited support from family are often precursors to fire-related property damage.
- Slavkin, Michael & Kenneth Fineman; What every professional who works with adolescents should know about firesetters; Adolescence; Winter 2000; Vol. 35; Issue 140.
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