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Children Who Set Fires

A child pyromaniac is one who suffers from an impulse-control disorder that is primarily distinguished by a compulsion to set fires in order to relieve built-up tension.

Most young kids are not diagnosed as having pyromania but rather conduct disorders. A key feature of pyromania is repeated association with fire but without a real motive. Pyromania is a very rare disorder and only occurs in about one percent of the population. It can occur in kids as young as three years old.

About ninety percent of the people officially diagnosed with pyromania are male. Pyromaniacs only set about 14% of fires.

Many clinical studies have found that fire setting rarely occurs by itself but usually occurs with other bad behavior. The motives that have recently earned the most attention are pleasure, a cry for help, retaliation against adults, and desire to reunite the family.

It seems like it is a combination of pyromania and bad behavior that initiates fire setting. Fire setting among kids and teenagers can be recurring or periodic. Some kids and teens may set fires often to release tension.

But then there are others that may only seek to set fires during times of great stress. Some of the symptoms of pyromania are depression, conflicts in relationships, and poor ability to cope with stress and anxiety.

The clinician's handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM, gives six standards that must be met for a kid to be officially diagnosed with pyromania.
  1. The kid had to have set more than one fire deliberately
  2. Before setting the fire, the kid must have felt some feelings of tension or arousal
  3. The kid must show that he is attracted to fire and anything related to fire
  4. The kid must feel a sense of relief or satisfaction from setting the fire and witnessing it
  5. The kid does not have other motives like revenge, financial motives, delusions or brain damage for setting the fire
  6. This fire setting problem cannot be attributed to other disorders like anti-social personality disorder or conduct disorders

Even though fire setting and pyromania are more prevalent in kids these standards are hard to apply to their age group. There is not a lot of experience in diagnosing pyromania mainly because of the little experience that health care professionals have with fire setting.

In terms of prevention, education and treatment in Juvenile Fire-setting, the Brandon School and Residential Treatment Center in Natick, MA offers two leading programs in this field. Their Rapid Fire-setting Treatment Program and Intensive Fire-setting Treatment Programs, among the only programs of their kind in the country, lead the Juvenile Fire-setting field in terms of evaluation, research, education and treatment; it is cutting-edge in working to define best practice standards. Furthermore, in collaboration with the Department of Fire Services, Brandon hosts the annual Northeast Juvenile Fire-setting Conference, which brings together the different disciplines impacted by juvenile fire-setting. During this time, social service, fire service, public safety, juvenile justice, education, and mental health professionals attend workshops by national experts to learn how to more effectively intervene in and prevent juvenile fire-setting.

There are many important distinctions between a kid pyromaniac and a kid fire setter. A fire setter is any individual who feels the impulse to set a fire for unusual reasons. A kid pyromaniac has the intent to inflict damage as a result of its fire setting.

Whereas a kid fire setter usually is curious about fire and has the desire to learn more about fire. A kid pyromaniac is more than just a simple fire setter; he is one who has an unusually bizarre impulse or desire to set intentional fires.

Pathological fire setting, pyromania, is when the desire to set fires is repetitive and destructive to people or property. The most important difference between pyromania and fire setting is pyromania is a mental disorder whereas fire setting is a behavior and can be fixed.

Minor or non-severe fire setting is defined as “accidental or occasional fire-starting behavior” by unsupervised kids. Usually these fires are started when a curious kid plays with matches, lighters, or small fires. Juveniles in this minor group average at the most 2.5 accidental fires in their lifetime.

Most kids in this group are between five and ten years of age and don't realize the dangers of playing with fire. Pathological fire setting or pyromania is when the action is “a deliberate, planned, and persistent behavior.” Juveniles in this severe group set about 5.3 fires. Most young kids are not diagnosed as having pyromania but conduct disorders.

There are two basic types of kids that start fires. The first type is the curiosity fire setter who starts the fire just to find out what will happen. The second type is the problem fire setter who usually sets fires based on changes in his environment or because of a pathological reason.

Fire-setting is made up with five subcategories: the curious fire-setter, the sexually motivated fire-setter, the "cry for help" fire-setter, "severely disturbed" group, and the rare form of pyromania. Pyromania usually surfaces in childhood, but there is no conclusive data about the normal age of onset.

Kid pyromaniacs are usually filled with an uncontrollable urge to set fires to relieve tension. Not much is known about what genetically causes pyromania but there have been many studies that have explored the topic.

The causes of fire setting among young kids and youths can be attributed to many factors, which are divided into individual factors, and environmental factors:

Individual Factors:

1. Antisocial behaviors and attitudes: Kids that set fires usually don't only set fires but also commit other crimes or offenses including vandalism, violence, anger, etc.

2. Sensation seeking: Some kids are attracted to fire setting because they are bored and just looking for something to do.

3. Attention seeking: Lighting a fire becomes a way to get back at the adults and in turn to produce a response from the adults

4. Lack of social skills: Some kids simply have not been taught enough social skills. Many of the kids and adolescents that have been discovered setting fires consider themselves to be "loners"

5. Lack of fire-safety skills and ignorance of their danger: For most kids not diagnosed with pyromania this is what drives them. Just natural curiosity and ignorance of the fire's destructive power.

6. Learning problems

7. Parental Problems like separation, neglect, and abuse

Environmental Factors:
  1. Poor supervision by parents or guardians
  2. Watching adults using fire inappropriately at an early age
  3. Parental neglect
  4. Parents abusing drugs or acting violently: This factor has been studied and the conclusions show that fire setters are more likely in homes where the parents abuse them
  5. Peer Pressure
  6. Stressful Life Events: Fire setting becomes a way to cope with crises

There has also been some medical research done that suggests a link to reactive hypoglycemia in the cerebrospinal fluid. Some of the similarities that have been discovered between the two are abnormalities in levels of neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin, which refer to problems in impulse control, and low blood sugars.

If a kid is diagnosed with pyromania there are treatment options even though there has not been enough scientific research on the genetic cause of pyromania especially in such a young age. Studies have shown that kids with repeat cases of setting fires tend to respond better to a case-management approach rather than a medical approach.

The first crucial step for treatment should be parents sitting down with their kid and having a one-on-one interview. The interview itself should try to determine what stresses on the family, methods of discipline, and other factors contribute to the kid's uncontrollable desire to set fires. Some examples of treatment methods are problem-solving skills, anger management, communication skills, Aggression Replacement Training, and cognitive restructuring.

The chances that a kid will recover from pyromania are very slim according to recent studies but there are ways to channel the kid's desire to set fires to relieve tension. When a kid diagnosed with pyromania feels the compulsion to start fire if the parents have suggested alternate ideas such as playing a sport or an instrument there is a chance that a kid can learn how to gain a thin grasp on his irresistible urge to set fires.

Another method of treatment is fire-safety education. But sometimes the best method of treatment is kid counseling or a residential treatment center.

However, since cases of kid pyromania are so rare there has not been enough research done on how successful these treatment methods really are in helping these kids. The most common and effective treatment of pyromania in kids is behavioral modification. The results usually range from fair to poor. Behavioral modification seems to work on kids with pyromaniac tendencies about 95% of the time.

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