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Types of Juvenile Firesetters
Most firesetter types that have been presented in the literature can be subsumed under the following categories. These categories are not mutually exclusive, since a firesetter may have multiple motives. The typology focuses on psychological state, what is set on fire, and prognosis.
While this curiosity-driven fireplay is apparently not pathological, it is nevertheless potentially dangerous. Since certain environmental (e.g., familial) factors may predict whether a child will engage in fireplay, these can serve as guides to preventive intervention. Access to matches, lapses in supervision, the child's perception that no discipline will be forthcoming if he or she is caught playing with fire, and premature exposure to, and responsibility for, activities involving fire are all associated with this type of fireplay. Teenagers playing scientist frequently fall into this group.
Delinquent type. The delinquent type usually includes youths between the ages of 11 and 15. Typically, their firesetting is part of a larger constellation of aggression and other conduct problems. There may also be involvement in vandalism and hate crimes. Though frequently showing little empathy for others and a poorly developed conscience, this type usually avoids harming others with fire. However, significant property damage is common. In this group, firesetting behavior is more easily treated than in individuals where there are other personality and behavioral problems accompanying the firesetting.
Severely disturbed type. The severely disturbed type includes youths who are paranoid and psychotic, for whom the fixation on fire may be a major factor. "Sensory reinforcement controlled" describes those for whom the sensory aspects of the fire are sufficiently reinforcing for them to set fires frequently. Their histories often suggest an early fixation on fire. Their willingness to harm others is difficult to predict; clinical experience shows that even with the psychotic there is a tendency to avoid harm. However, the degree of reinforcement control in the pyromaniac, a subtype of the sensory reinforcement controlled (usually involving sexual reinforcement), is often powerful enough for significant harm to occur. (The experience of the first author indicates that those for whom sexual reinforcement is involved make up less than two percent of adolescents and adults who set fires.)
Some severely disturbed firesetters engage in self-harm. They use fire to harm or kill themselves. Prognosis is guarded for this group, with the degree to which fire is a significant part of a youth's intrapsychic life being an important factor.
Cognitively impaired type. The cognitively impaired type (including the developmentally disabled and the organically impaired), though tending to avoid intentional harm, lacks good judgment, and significant property damage is common. They are good candidates for therapy. The organically impaired are those whose ability to control impulses is significantly affected by their neurological or medical condition. Also included in this group are those with severe learning disabilities, as well as those with fetal alcohol syndrome or who were harmed by their mothers' drug use during pregnancy.
Sociocultural type. The sociocultural type includes youths who set fires primarily for the approval they get for doing so by antisocial groups within the community. Also included are those who set fires during civil unrest, either because of rage or in order to call attention to their cause. Most such firesetters try to avoid harming others, but cause significant property damage. They are usually responsive to treatment.
Pathological Firesetting Scenario
Prevent Youth Firesetting
- U.S. Fire Administration. (2012). Prevent Youth Firesetting National Arson Awareness Week Media Kit. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 1-9.
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