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Why Do Children Start Fires? A Forensic Psychology Podcast Episode.



To kick off the new year I really wanted to return our focus to the amazing world of forensic psychology and fire-setting behaviours. In this fascinating episode of the podcast, we’ll look at why children start fires and commit arson. If you love learning about youth offending and criminal psychology then you’re bound to love this brilliant episode.


Today’s psychology podcast episode is sponsored by The Forensic Psychology of Theft, Burglary and Property Crime. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.


Why Do We Need To Look At Why Children Start Fires?

Whilst I’ve written about the topic before, youthful offending when it comes to arson is hardly rare because according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1,200 adolescents and children were arrested on fire-setting-related charges in 2020. Also research from the Department of Justice shows that over 50% of arson cases were committed by youth offenders. Therefore, this is important to look at because the vast majority of fires are started by children.


Another reason why this is an important area is because deliberate firesetting by everyone often results in death or injury and around $1.4 billion in property damage each year. As a result, if we can understand why children set fires then we can hopefully prevent them and stop some of the injuries, death and sheer amount of damage from happening in the first place.


Nonetheless, given how much I hate Criminal Profiling as I explain in my book, I’m hardly surprised that there’s limited research for a so-called psychology profile, but there is research showing that most perpetrators are motivated by instrumental factors. For instance, a strong desire for some kind of financial gain.


Why Children Start Fires: Motivations

Abuse and Neglect As Child Firesetting Factors and What Targets Do Children Set Fire To?

Firstly, one reason why children set fires can be found in Root et al. (2008) because the researchers found that abused and neglected children were more likely to be involved in firesetting when compared to children that weren’t treated in this disgusting way. Also the researchers found that the abused children who set fires were more motivated by anger and rage as well as more flexible in their firesetting targets, with their firesetting behaviours being more likely linked to immediate family stressors than other factors.


Moreover, most commonly children set fire to isolated wooded areas and abandoned structures but a 2015 study from Ekbrand and Uhnoo analysed tons of cases of school firesetting with them finding that many offenders engage in school firesetting to obstruct school activities, commit vandalism and eliminate evidence of school burglary.


The Notion of Mental Health and Child Firesetting

It was towards the end of this post when I realised that there were so many myths and misconceptions about firesetting and mental health that this just needed its own section so we could really focus on it.


Consequently, research shows that adult firesetters can be motivated by anger and rage or they engage in typical behaviours as a cry for help. Yet researchers have also determined that certain antisocial behaviours, communications and self-regulation problems play, as well as certain mental health conditions, could underpin some of these criminal offences. As a result of a person who engages in these abnormal firesetting practices could be suffering from a pyromania. Which is an impulse-control disorder with the hallmark of a pattern of firesetting that functions as an avenue of gratification or to release their anxiety.


However, I have to admit, the literature is go vague on the idea of pyromania and to be honest, there seems to be such a limited amount of research that even suggests pyromania is a mental health condition. As well as even psychologists like Robert Stadolnik who has performed firesetting risk assessment for over 30 years points out how he has never ever met a child that fits the diagnosis of pyromania because the very notion that a child has an innate urge to set fire is a complete myth.


So again I think that is a tedious claim to say that pyromania motivates children.


Additionally, returning to the 2015 study we looked at earlier, they also found that people diagnosed with severe mental health conditions and targeted schools had no educational relationship with the school at the time of the offence. Which I would personally imagine sounds a little weird because you would have imagined they might want to burn down a school because they were angry with it, but this isn’t the case according to the 2015 study.


In addition, when it comes to mental health of youth firesetters, Michael and Slavkin (2014) found this group of offenders often has difficulties in communicating with their family members, peers and people at school. Then these social deficits could have a negative impact on their mental health, possibly leading to an amplifying of their firesetting behaviour. Which could effectively co-occur with conduct or antisocial difficulties.


Another mental health condition that is also of interest to arson researchers is Conduct Disorder. Which is characterised by a pattern of behavioural and emotional problems including disregarding others. As well as firesetting with intent to cause property damage is listed as an example of problematic behaviour for Conduct Disorder in the DSM-5. Finally, when it comes to child firesetters many of them have a history of PTSD, victimisation and generalised anxiety disorder as well. Due to all of these are extremely common in this offender demographic too.


However, it is critical to note here that just because a child sets a fire, it doesn’t mean that they have a mental health condition or that mental health is even remotely a primary cause of firesetting by children.


Overall, I think of course mental health plays a role in child firesetting because to say it is the only factor, or even a major factor isn’t a good idea, and it is very reductionist. Therefore, let’s talk about some other reasons for child firesetting now.


Gender and Child Firesetting Behaviour

Furthermore, when it comes to gender and gender differences in firesetting behaviour, research and experience from Stadolnik, shows that firesetters are mainly males yet researchers are seeing an increase in female firesetting in adolescent populations. As well as there isn’t any exact research at the moment on the gender differences in firesetting, but Stadolnik affirms that young people set fires for the thrill, as coping mechanisms for past experiences and they want to experiment with fire with the psychologist saying “Some kids will set fires as a means to self-soothe… Many of the children we see have a history of trauma or neglect.”


Personally, I would prefer to see more research into this area because there is such a lack of it at the moment and that’s one of the things that I realised when I was writing the arson section of the book. Therefore, I do hope that this improves over time and more researchers conduct research that will help us to really understand why they do it and what are the gender differences. Especially as right now I sort of feel like sometimes research and opinions in this area just read like guesswork.


Forensic Psychology Conclusion

In today’s episode, we’ve looked at a lot of reasons for why children set fires. Some of them are related to mental health, some aren’t and there is a lot of evidence that mental health isn’t as major of a factor as everyone thinks it is.


However, the point of today’s episode is that firesetting is a dangerous behaviour and a potential feature of a mental health condition. Yet without more research into the area, we just will not know the full extent and how major any of these factors actually are. As well as clinical psychologists will have to be involved at some point because even if this firesetting behaviour isn’t a part of a mental health condition, we still have the knowledge to hopefully help the child to change their behaviour, thoughts and desires so they will hopefully set fires less and stop committing so much damage.


That is the hope anyway, and everything good in the world always starts with a little hope.


I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.


If you want to learn more, please check out:

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The Forensic Psychology of Theft, Burglary and Property Crime. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.


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Have a great day.


Forensic Psychology References

Apsche, J. A., Siv, A. M., & Bass, C. K. (2005). A case analysis of MDT with an adolescent with conduct personality disorder and fire setting behaviors. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 1(4), 312.


Garry, E. M. (1997). Juvenile firesetting and arson. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).


Root, C., Mackay, S., Henderson, J., Del Bove, G., & Warling, D. (2008). The link between maltreatment and juvenile firesetting: Correlates and underlying mechanisms. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32(2), 161-176.


Ekbrand, H., & Uhnoo, S. (2015). Juvenile firesetting in schools. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(10), 1291-1308.


Slavkin, M. L. (2002). Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: What Every Clinician Needs to Know About Juvenile Firesetters. Psychiatric services, 53(10), 1237-1238.


Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). (n.d). Estimated number of juvenile arrests, 2020. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/qa05101.asp


Dalhuisen, L., Koenraadt, F., & Liem, M. (2017). Subtypes of firesetters. Criminal behaviour and mental health, 27(1), 59-75.


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