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Teaching Parents Strategies for Difficult Teens
Difficult Teens continuing education psychology CEUs

Section 17
Types of Juvenile Firesetters

CEU Question 17 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Parenting
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Types of Juvenile Firesetters
Therapists who have treated juvenile firesetters recommend linking specific treatment protocols with particular types of firesetters. Fineman (1995) has presented a dynamic-behavioral model to classify firesetters. Such categorization can help determine a particular firesetter's risk level for dangerous behavior (i.e., property destruction, physical harm, and/or emotional trauma). It can also assist in assessing the probability that the juvenile will set more fires.

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.

Nonpathological Firesetters
Curiosity (or accidental) type. The most common profile is that of children who act primarily out of curiosity and do not understand the consequences of their behavior. The majority of these children are merely experimenting with fire and do not have psychological problems. They tend to be primarily between 5 and 10 years of age, and to be involved in only one fire incident.

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.

Pathological Firesetters
The cry-for-help type. This type includes children of all ages. Consciously or not, they want to draw attention to a severe problem they are experiencing. It may be an intrapersonal problem, such as depression or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. It could also be interpersonal, such as the stress associated with parental separation, divorce, or remarriage. This type of firesetting is likely to continue if there is no intervention. Physical and sexual abuse and chronic neglect are frequently associated with recidivism. However, this type responds well to treatment.

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
The following scenario presents the typical cognitions, behaviors, and emotions of a pathological firesetter (in this example, a male), in the sequence in which they most frequently occur. The youth, because of his early experiences and reinforcement history, is predisposed to a variety of maladaptive behaviors. He undergoes a crisis that lowers stress tolerance and increases impulsivity. He feels victimized by the instigator of the crisis, if not by society at large. This crisis may create a specific motive (i.e., the need to obtain relief from anger or jealousy or to exact revenge). He considers setting a fire. He visualizes a successful instance of firesetting, thus reducing anxiety/guilt, which might be evoked the first time a fire is attempted. He decides to start a fire, making a conscious decision to destroy property. He gets what he needs to start the fire. Cognitively, he justifies his behavior before starting the fire. Anger frequently accompanies his cognitive distortions and justifications, and he may have delusions of invulnerability. He starts a fire, and self-justifications continue. New emotional states may occur; for example, elation may replace anger. He may enjoy the fire's destructiveness or the feeling of having power over others. The firesetter dwells on his invulnerability and justifications even after the fire is over. Affective states may vary from euphoria to serenity. He reassures himself that he will not get caught now or in the future, even if he repeats the act. The firesetter shows little remorse and feels optimistic about future firesetting.
- Slavkin, Michael & Kenneth Fineman; What every professional who works with adolescents should know about firesetters; Adolescence; Winter 2000; Vol. 35; Issue 140.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained information about types of juvenile firesetters.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 17
According to Slavkin & Fineman, what is a "sensory reinforcement controlled" type of firesetter? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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