What Every Professional Who Works with Adolescents Needs to Know about Firesetters

Article excerpt


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.

Individual Factors

Antisocial behaviors (deviance, vandalism, and aggression). Firesetting has been found to be closely related to other antisocial behaviors (Fineman, 1995; Raines & Foy, 1994). Research has indicated that firesetters tend to exhibit conduct problems, such as disobedience and aggressiveness (Forehand, Wierson, Frame, Kemptom, & Armistead, 1991; Thomas & Grimes, 1994). …


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