Is it normal for children to play with fire? If my child starts fires should I be worried they are a pyromaniac? Learn how to distinguish myths from facts about pyromania.
Pyromania is commonly misused to describe someone who merely likes or starts fires. However, pyromania is more than a mere fascination or curiosity with fire. Pyromania is classified as a mental health disorder that affects less than 1% of the population.
Increased awareness of mental health disorders helps lessen the stigma that surrounds them. Therefore, it is important to learn about common pyromania myths to be able to separate fact from fiction.
1) Myth: It’s normal for children to play with fire.
Fact: It’s normal for children to be curious about fire, but starting them is dangerous.
According to the U.S. fire department, in 2010, 44,900 fires were reported, with the majority of fires being started by children. It should not be surprising that a child would be curious about fire. Children are hard-wired to mimic or copy the behavior of parents or other adults around them. If they see the oven burners being turned on or lighters being used, chances are they will want to try those things as well. Around 52% of home structure fires are started with a lighter. The age-groups most susceptible to fire play are preschoolers and kindergarteners.
Children’s natural curiosity with fire and their inherent ability to mimic parental behavior make it important to set boundaries early on. Adults should avoid playing with fire in front of children. If tools are used to start a fire, children should know that they are tools and not toys. Outline areas of the kitchen that are off-limits for kids, such as the stove burners. Encourage children to alert parents when matches or lighters are left unattended. Creating awareness of the possible dangers of fire can limit a child’s curiosity about fire. This awareness is important during the early years until children can fully understand the consequences fire can have.
2) Myth: Burning a child’s hand will stop them from setting fires.
Fact: Burning a child’s hand is abuse.
While setting fires is a point of concern for any parent, it is never okay to burn a child’s hand. This type of behavior is abuse and will make the parent or adult liable to punishment by law. In addition to legal repercussions, such abuse endangers the child’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Instead of helping a child, this behavior will only cause further damage to a child.
If a parent notices that their child likes to set fires or has done it on more than one occasion, there are some important steps to take to limit this behavior. First, identify the reason a child is setting fires. Is it rooted in curiosity, boredom or attention seeking? Second, take the time to educate the child on the dangers and consequences of firesetting. The National Fire Protection Association has helpful videos that can be used to increase awareness of fires. Third, keep any fire starting tools out of the reach of children and set clear boundaries for kitchen stoves, wood stoves and fireplaces.
3) Myth: Everyone who intentionally starts a fire is a pyromaniac.
Fact: Firesetting can be intentional or accidental and does not mean someone is a pyromaniac.
The motivations for firesetting can be complicated. However, it is important to remember that pyromania is not synonymous with arson. Pyromania is a mental health condition, arson is a crime and firesetting is a behavior.
Firesetting can be intentional or accidental. Accidental firesetting could happen when a person falls asleep with a cigarette. On the other hand, someone may intentionally set what was meant to be a controlled fire, and that fire could spread to other areas due to wind or carelessness.
Arson is the willful setting of fire to a structure or property of another person with harmful intentions. Substance use disorders, such as alcohol abuse, personality disorders, psychotic disorders, low IQ and mental retardation are frequently seen among those who practice arson. It is very rare to find a true pyromaniac who commits arson.
Firesetting is central to the diagnosis of pyromania, but not all firesetting amounts to arson. Pyromania involves persistent and deliberate firesetting to relieve tension and experience pleasure when watching the aftermath of the fire. This type of firesetting behavior is pathological, and not criminal in intent, though it can have serious consequences.
4) Myth: Pyromania is common in juveniles.
Fact: Pyromania is a rare condition not linked with other delinquent behavior.
The juvenile court system tries, sentences or incarcerates around 250,000 youths per year. In 2017, only 6.5 arrests per 100,000 youth aged 10–17 were specifically for arson, the lowest since 1980. These figures are for arson, and not pyromania. There is no evidence that points to pyromania being a common denominator among juveniles.
Pyromania is not a common disorder, affecting less than 1% of the population. There are currently no statistics concerning pyromania in children or teens. The behavior of firesetting, however, typically occurs before the age of 15 and peaks between age 12 and 14 in about 60% of cases. This type of behavior in youth can be attributed to mistreatment, boredom, family stress or mental health disorders such as antisocial personality disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although firesetting is seen among adolescents, additional criteria must be met for an individual to be diagnosed with pyromania.
5) Myth: Only boys have pyromania.
Fact: Pyromania can be diagnosed in boys and girls.
Because of the rarity of pyromania, there are limited systematic studies concerning this condition. Available studies indicate that men appear to have a stronger disposition for pyromania when compared to women. Firesetting, which is central to the diagnosis of pyromania, can be seen as a male-dominated behavior with over two-thirds of firesetters being male. This may be a contributing reason for this myth. However, women can also develop this condition.
In one study conducted in 21 adults with lifetime pyromania (inpatient and outpatient), nearly 50% were female patients. Although the study itself was small, it also noted that pyromania often has a high comorbidity with other psychiatric disorders, such as mood disorders (62%) and impulse-control disorder (48%). While the true prevalence rate for pyromania in males vs females is unknown, it’s clear that the disorder can and has been diagnosed in men and women alike.
6) Myth: Setting fires is a phase that children will outgrow.
Fact: Setting fires is dangerous and a child who frequently sets fires should be evaluated.
Firesetting should always be taken seriously, especially among inexperienced children. The National Fire Protection Association stated that between 2007–2011, there was an average of 49,300 fires involving children and fire play. There were 80 deaths and $235 million lost in property damage. Viewing fire play or firesetting as merely a phase a child will outgrow is dangerous and expensive.
While some childhood behaviors can be outgrown, setting fires is not one of them. If there is a true underlying pathological condition responsible for the firesetting, such as pyromania, it will become chronic if left untreated. Unfortunately, most people who suffer from pyromania do not receive treatment for their condition. It is important to identify factors that could indicate whether a person has the risk factors and associated behavior for pyromania.
Diagnostic criteria for pyromania include:
- Deliberate or planned firesetting that occurs more than once
- Tension before the act
- Intense interest and curiosity about or attraction to fire and firesetting tools
- Pleasure and tension relief felt when watching the aftermath of firesetting
- The firesetting is not related to monetary gain, revenge, impaired judgment or in response to a delusion
- The firesetting is not linked to or better explained by another mental health condition
7) Myth: Pyromania is difficult to treat.
Fact: Pyromania is treatable with good outcomes.
Pyromania, although rare, is not untreatable. Seeking treatment for a child, youth or an adult can greatly improve the prognosis for pyromania. The methods for pyromania treatment are varied. It is important to identify any other comorbid conditions that are seen alongside pyromania. In one study, 95% of people who had a history of firesetting also had a history of a psychiatric disorder.
Conditions that may co-occur with firesetting and pyromania include:
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
- Impulse control disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Bipolar disorder
One promising treatment for pyromania is cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages a person to think about the emotions that drive certain behaviors and personal difficulties. It can help a person develop techniques to unlearn destructive habits and thought patterns as well as come up with appropriate alternatives.
There have not been any controlled trials of medication specifically used to treat pyromania. Some proposed medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, lithium, atypical antipsychotic and anti-seizure medications.
Whatever treatment is decided on by an individual and their therapist, it is important to know that help and professional care are available. Mental health conditions, such as pyromania, shouldn’t be a life sentence.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of pyromania or other dangerous firesetting behavior while misusing alcohol or other substances, feel free to reach out to us at The Recovery Village. Our representatives will be happy to discuss one of our treatment plans with you.
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