This past week, police officers in Florida arrested an 18-year-old kid as prime suspect in a wave of cat killings and mutilations. The killing and torturing of animals for pleasure (excluding traditional hunting) is one of the strongest signs of serious psychopathology. Firesetting is likely a close second, with most adults and adolescents who engage in arson also have a history of childhood firesetting. But until now, most studies have not been able to accurately examine what type of firesetting is predictive of later problems? For example, some children who engage in firesetting do not engage in arson or have serious psychopathology. So what are the characteristics (severity, duration, etc) that are associated with such ‘transitional’ or ‘phase’ firesetting versus a firesetting behavior that is more chronic and potentially pathological?

In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry a team of researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada conducted a large epidemiological examination of firesetting among 3,965 Canadian children and adolescents in grades 7 to 12. The authors examined the correlates of 4 types of fire setters:

  1. No history of fire setting
  2. Desisters: History of firesetting but none during the past year
  3. Low frequency (1-2 during past year)
  4. High frequency (3+ times during the past year)

The authors then examined the following variables:

  • sex
  • age
  • school level
  • grades
  • is family intact?
  • welfare involvement?
  • difficulty with peers
  • daily smoking
  • binge drinking
  • cannabis use
  • other illicit drug use
  • delinquent behaviors
  • Ritalin use
  • high sensation seeking personality
  • psychological distress
  • suicidal ideation

The Results:

  1. 72% of the sample had either never engaged in fire setting (32%) or had engaged sometime during their lives but not during the past year (40.5%)
  2. 27% reported engaging in firesetting during the past 12 months.
  3. While controlling for other variables:

  4. When compared to those with no history of firesetting, the “desisters” were were more likely to be male, older, smokers, cannabis  users, high sensation seekers, and have high levels of psychological distress.
  5. When compared to those with no history of firesetting, the high frequency fire setters were more likely to be male, have low parental monitoring, be binge drinkers, cannabis users, illicit drug users, have a history of delinquent behaviors, be sensation seeking, have high levels of psychological distress, and have suicidal ideation.  This profile was almost identical to the profile of low frequency firesetters.

One way to conceptualize these findings is to examine the factors that predicted high/low frequency firesetters but die no predict ‘desisters’. For example, low parental monitoring was associated with low/high frequency firesetters but not with desisters. This suggests that low parental monitor is a risk factor in more chronic firesetting behaviors and that parental monitoring may not have an impact on isolated events of firesetting that do not become chronic. Cannabis was associated with all groups, so it’s not that informative. This is not surprising given that cannabis use is very frequent among teens. However, other illicit drug use was associated with frequent fire setting only, likely reflecting the severity of behavior problems among these teens. This is supported by the finding that only the low and high frequency fire setters, and not the desisters, were more likely to have a history of delinquent behaviors.

The Reference: MacKay, S., Paglia-Boak, A., Henderson, J., Marton, P., & Adlaf, E. (2009). Epidemiology of firesetting in adolescents: mental health and substance use correlates Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/

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