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Twisted Firestarters

Why do some kids love to set shit on fire? We asked a psychologist who’s dedicated his career to that question

If you weren’t that kid, you knew that kid: a cousin, a classmate, or a neighbor down the block who had a thing for fire. He (or, less often, she) collected lighters, hoarded fireworks, was always the first to volunteer when there was a campfire to be built or a grill to be lit. Even his parents called him a pyro, but unless things got out of hand, it was just a joke — boys will be boys, and some boys just like fire.

But what about when things do get out of hand? According to national statistics, kids playing with fire set almost 50,000 fires each year, causing, on average, $265 million in property damage, 860 injuries and 80 deaths. Juvenile firesetting is the technical term for the behavior (as opposed to “pyromania” — more on that later), and fire departments around the country have set up intervention and treatment programs for firesetters.

Many of those are based on the research and treatment programs developed by Paul Schwartzman, a mental health counselor and educator who lives near Rochester, NY. Ever since the local fire chief knocked on his door in the early ‘80s, asking for help with kids who couldn’t leave fire alone, Schwartzman has dedicated his career to figuring out what drives firesetting behavior, and how to deal with it before curiosity turns to compulsion.

Why do kids get into firesetting?
It starts with experimentation — an innate curiosity. There’s a momentary lapse in supervision, access to matches or lighters, and a poor understanding of what they were really getting involved in. That accounts for thousands of fires each year.

Then it goes from there. Probably the second most prevalent reason is a cry for help. Kids see that this makes mom and dad flip out, and they begin to learn that this has power. I’ve found that the strongest predictor of repeat firesetting is neglect and abuse—physical and sexual. But it can come up in response to other kinds of life crises.

Then we also see more peer-driven behavior — the middle-school boys in the bathroom, or the cafeteria, setting fires on a dare. We see gang initiations, too, or turf wars, or cases where it’s more delinquency-related: Kids steal a car and burn it to destroy the evidence.

Then on the far end of the continuum, there’s a much smaller percentage of youth dealing with more profound mental illness.

The term “pyro” gets thrown around a lot, but what’s the difference between firesetting and pyromania?
Pyromania is controversial. Before the publication of the latest edition of the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], there was extensive debate over whether it should even be included. I don’t know how the argument got won, but for some reason it stayed — I wouldn’t have kept it in.

The idea with pyromania is that there’s a compulsion to start fires in the absence of any other motivation. I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years, and I can count on one hand the times where we really couldn’t find any motivation — and just because we couldn’t find it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

The majority of times, the fire itself serves a purpose. It’s calming or soothing, alleviates stress, or gives a sense of control.

Is there any way to predict if a kid acting out of curiosity, apparently just experimenting with fire, will turn into a more serious firesetter?
That’s the million-dollar question we’ve worked on for years. The most honest answer is: No, we can’t predict. Very often it falls into a constellation of behaviors, so if we’re seeing early on a child who is displaying lots of acting out behaviors, aggressive behaviors, we know that there’s more there.

Most firesetters are male. What makes this a gendered phenomenon?
The old standard explanation is that boys are socialized to be more assertive or aggressive, and those kinds of behaviors are modeled by the men in their lives. When you look at the numbers of kids referred to fire services, it’s 85 percent male to 15 percent female.

But when we looked at a developmental study that asked boys and girls if they’d ever misused fire, we discovered the number of girls doubled. They just don’t get caught as often — they’re a little more cautious about it, a little less aggressive about it, might just light the lighter but not burn things down.

Does firesetting become a more serious problem in older kids?
It’s a mistake to correlate age with motivation. The stereotype is the pain-in-the-ass 15-year-old, but the majority of kids tend to be middle school and down, with a spike between 7 and 10 and another spike at middle school around 12 or 13. Then it falls off rapidly. That doesn’t mean we don’t find kids up to 16, 17 doing this, but as a group this tends to be a behavior of younger children, not older children.

The mistake has always been made that, if it’s a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old, the intent is purely curiosity. It’s true that they may not have the intellectual sense of anticipation or strategy that an older child would, but I’ve worked with many who are intentionally setting fires, and understand what they’re doing.

Is this a particularly American problem?
There’s no question that, among the industrialized nations of the world, we’re about number one in the fire problem almost across the board. Some regions are worse than others — the South has a higher percentage, and there’s a poverty correlation, too.

From a cultural standpoint, there is a casual attitude around fire. Even now, a kind of national popular activity is bonfires, and there’s a huge growth in the sales of these backyard and patio firepits. I love a good campfire, it’s wonderful, but the question is how much responsibility we give to kids. A lot of times, if they show some initiative, parents just let kids build the fire on their own; we’re more permissive than in other parts of the world. In Japan, which has a history of wooden houses with paper walls, if you had a fire in your home you were ostracized, driven out of the community.

How do fireworks play into this?
Fireworks definitely play a part. Once again it’s about modeling judgment and safe use.

And they’re rarely safe: Where I live, fireworks are illegal other than for professional use, but there’s been heavy lobbying by the fireworks industry to legalize sparklers and smaller fireworks from June 1 to July 6. So I looked at local and national statistics, and we had about 11,000 emergency room visits between June 1 and July 6 for sparklers alone — hand injuries, finger injuries, face, eyes.

How do you treat this kind of behavior?
We start with an intervention program — fire departments across the country run these every year. They teach about the power of fire, the speed of fire, and are really designed to break the belief that “I can manage this, I can control it.”

We go into the consequences of fire: the damage, burn injuries, legal liability, the sense of acceptance in your community — one young man I worked with, a seventh-grader, started a significant garage fire in his own home; then, soon after, his friends weren’t allowed to play with him anymore because their parents said he was a pyro.

We find when we track programs over time, the recidivism rate for curiosity-based firesetters hovers around 2 or 3 percent. So 97 percent of the time, it works.

How can you treat the more severe cases?
Beyond curiosity, we need to understand what’s going on very specifically. If we’re talking about neglect and abuse issues, we get into mental health treatment, family dynamics, then juvenile justice when dealing with accountability, especially if there’s serious delinquency, for lack of a better word.

From a clinical standpoint, we can use cognitive behavioral therapy to address the thinking errors that go along with firesetting, help kids really understand the choices around fire, and then find alternate tools for things like stress relief.

How has the landscape changed since you started working with firesetting in the ‘80s?
The number of fires in this country is way down. When I first came into the situation we were talking hundreds, thousands of fires attributed to youth. We’ve cut that in half.

Some of that is that the culture’s changing — as smoking habits change, as access to lighters and matches changes. And we’ve been addressing this for over 30 years now, so I think we have more of an infrastructure than we’ve ever had. That said, I believe that firesetting is still incredibly underreported, and preventive education is nowhere near where it needs to be.