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Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 Apr;31(3):307-27. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.12.010. Epub 2011 Jan 12.

Creating a firestorm: a review of children who deliberately light fires.

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Psychology Department, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.


Deliberate firesetting is a significant social problem that causes millions of dollars of property damage each year. Of particular concern is that a high proportion of these arson offences are committed by children and adolescents. Youth firesetters are a unique and diverse group, variant in their motivations, needs and behavior and distinct from their adult counterparts. The study of firesetting has been approached in a number of ways and thus the existing body of research lacks a coherent, consistent and comprehensive set of empirical findings. In synthesizing the literature on child and adolescent firesetting, this review considers the potential relationships between firesetting typologies, risk factors, development and treatment. It considers the extent to which firesetting can be considered within the framework of antisocial behavior and what implications such a relationship may have for clinical practice. The review concludes that despite a number of risk factors being repeatedly identified, an understanding of the etiology behind firesetting behavior and potential developmental trajectories remains theoretically rather than empirically based. Existing typological theories do not take sufficient account of the complexities of firesetting behavior and there is not yet a typology and accompanying assessment that has undergone thorough empirical testing and is of significant clinical utility. Despite indications that the relationship between firesetting and antisocial behavior is of a serious nature, there has been a general lack of attention to this in literature and practice. Attention to this relationship is necessary not just in the area of firesetting research and practice, but also amongst those working with youth with behavioral difficulties and conduct problems, as for these individuals firesetting is likely to indicate particularly high risk for severity of behavior and future offending. Because of this relationship and the diversity of firesetting populations there is a need for collaborative intervention for firesetters that includes thorough assessment and provides an individualized, and developmentally appropriate approach best suited to the needs of the individual. This review reflects on the methodological limitations as well as clinical implications of existing studies and suggests necessary directions for future research.

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