Enuresis, Firesetting, and Cruelty to Animals: Does the Ego Triad Show Predictive Validity?

By Slavkin, Michael Lawrence | Adolescence, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Enuresis, Firesetting, and Cruelty to Animals: Does the Ego Triad Show Predictive Validity?


Slavkin, Michael Lawrence, Adolescence


ABSTRACT

The hypothesis tested in this study was that the presence of enuresis and cruelty to animals in juvenile firesetters would be significantly related to recidivistic firesetting. This hypothesis was related to Yarnell's belief in an ego triad among juvenile firesetters, which linked the occurrence of enuresis, cruelty to animals and others, and firesetting. No relationship was found between groups for firesetting recidivism and enuresis. However, juveniles who were identified as being cruel to animals were more likely than those who were not cruel to animals to engage in recidivistic firesetting behaviors.

Each year, fires set by juveniles account for a large portion of fire-related public property damage and deaths. Fires set by children and adolescents are more likely than any other household disaster to result in death (National Fire Protection Association, 1999). In 1998, it was estimated that fires set by children and juveniles resulted in 6,215 American deaths, another 30,800 injuries, and billions of dollars in property damage (National Fire Protection Association, 1999). Despite the costs and impact of juvenile firesetting, it remains a little-studied area. The limited research that does exist is dominated by a psychodynamic perspective.

Examinations of the motivating forces behind juvenile firesetting have often relied on a psychoanalytic orientation (Kaufman, Heims, & Reiser, 1961; Lester, 1975; Rothstein, 1963; Yarnell, 1940). Those writings are largely based upon Freud's (1932) assertion that firesetting in youth is a regressive retreat to "primitive man's" desire to gain power and control over nature. Freud (1930) states: "In man's struggles to gain power over the tyranny of nature, his acquisition of power over fire was the most important. It is as if primitive man had had the impulse when he came in contact with fire, to gratify an infantile pleasure in respect of it and put it out with a stream of urine....Putting out fire by urinating... therefore represents a sexual act with a man, an enjoyment of masculine potency in homosexual rivalry. Whoever was the first to deny himself this pleasure and spare the fire was able to take it with him and break it into his own service. By curbing the fire of his own sexual passion he was able to ta ke fire as a force of nature.... It is remarkable how regular analytic findings testify to the close connection between the ideas of ambition, fire, and urethral eroticism" (p. 50). Freud's perception of the youthful firesetter has guided the firesetting literature, specifically that juvenile firesetting is an ego-oriented conflict.

In her seminal work on juvenile firesetters, Yarnell (1940) examined 60 young psychiatric patients at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Yarnell (1940) asserted that firesetting in juveniles is the result of (1) castration fears, (2) enuresis, and (3) the influence of the mother figure in the life of the child. Yarnell speculated that youths who set fires do so in order to gain power over adults. She emphasized the neglectful nature of the mother-son relationship. Yarnell also examined the juvenile firesetters' relationships with fathers as they related to professional issues, such as for children whose fathers were fire-fighting professionals. She supported Freud's views that juvenile firesetters have difficulty with enuresis and cruelty to animals and to others.

Yarnell proposed an ego triad among juvenile firesetters that linked the occurrence of enuresis, cruelty to animals and others, and firesetting in youth. The comorbidity of these behaviors and their predictive power in identifying adult criminal behavior have been verified in a number of studies (Lester, 1975; Prentky & Carter, 1984; Robbins & Robbins, 1967; Rothstein, 1963; Wax & Haddox, 1974).

It is not surprising that these three behaviors were identified simultaneously in juveniles who set fires; the studies that validated the triad used institutionalized samples.

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