Most young children 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 children as young as three years old.
About ninety percent of the people officially diagnosed with pyromania are male. Pyromaniacs and people with other mental illnesses are responsible for about 14% of fires.
Many clinical studies have found that fire setting rarely occurs by itself but usually occurs with other socially unacceptable 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 children and teens can be recurring or periodic. Some children 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 child to be officially diagnosed with pyromania.
- The child had to have set more than one fire deliberately.
- Before setting the fire, the child must have felt some feelings of tension or arousal
- The child must show that he or she is attracted to fire and anything related to fire
- The child must feel a sense of relief or satisfaction from setting the fire and witnessing it
- The child does not have other motives like revenge, financial motives, delusions or brain damage for setting the fire
- 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 children 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.
Child pyromaniacs vs. child fire-setters
There are many important distinctions between a child pyromaniac and a child fire-setter. In general, a fire-setter is any individual who feels the impulse to set a fire for unusual reasons.
Whereas a child fire-setter is usually curious about fire and has the desire to learn more about fire, a child 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 that pyromania is a mental disorder, but fire-setting is simply a behavior and can be more easily fixed.
Minor or nonsevere fire-setting is defined as “accidental or occasional fire-starting behavior” by unsupervised children. Usually these fires are started when a curious child plays with matches, lighters, or small fires. Juveniles in this minor group average at most 2.5 accidental fires in their lifetime.
Most children in this group are between five and ten years of age and don't realize the dangers of playing with fire. Pathological fire-setting, known as pyromania, manifests when the action is “a deliberate, planned, and persistent behavior.” Juveniles in this severe group set about 5.3 fires. Most young children are not diagnosed as having pyromania but conduct disorders.
There are two basic types of children 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 of 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.
Child 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 children and youths can be attributed to many factors, which are divided into individual factors, and environmental factors:
- Antisocial behaviors and attitudes: Children that set fires usually don't only set fires but also commit other crimes or offenses including vandalism, violence, anger, etc.
- Sensation seeking: Some children are attracted to fire setting because they are bored and just looking for something to do.
- Attention seeking: Lighting a fire becomes a way to get back at the adults and in turn to produce a response from the adults
- Lack of social skills: Some children simply have not been taught enough social skills. Many of the children and adolescents that have been discovered setting fires consider themselves to be "loners"
- Lack of fire-safety skills and ignorance of their danger: For most children not diagnosed with pyromania this is what drives them. Just natural curiosity and ignorance of the fire's destructive power.
- Learning problems
- Parental Problems like separation, neglect, and abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Poor supervision by parents or guardians.
- Watching adults using fire inappropriately at an early age
- Parental neglect
- 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
- Peer pressure
- 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 child 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 children 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 child 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 child'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 child will recover from pyromania are very slim according to recent studies but there are ways to channel the child's desire to set fires to relieve tension. When a child 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 child can learn how to gain a thin grasp on his irresistible urge to set fires.
However, since cases of child pyromania are so rare there has not been enough research done on how successful these treatment methods really are in helping these children. The most common and effective treatment of pyromania in children is behavioral modification. The results usually range from fair to poor. Behavioral modification seems to work on children with pyromaniac tendencies about 95% of the time.
The two biggest sides of the argument were whether pyromania comes from a mental or genetic disorder or moral deficiency. Freud reasoned that fire setting was an archaic desire to gain power over nature.
The first study done on fire setting behavior in children was in 1940 and was credited to Helen Yarnall who found that the compared fire setting to fears of castration in male children and said that by setting the fire the young males feel that they have gained power over adults. This 1940 study also introduced the idea that a good predictor of violent behavior like fire setting in adult life is fire setting and cruelty towards animals as a child.
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