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John G. Jordan Sr.

Donald G. Lynch

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Yaphank, New York 11980
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Understanding Youth Firesetter Behavior: What's in a Name?

The misuse of fire has many variables including age, motivation for firesetting behavior, type of fires set, ignition materials used to set the fire, and the child's understanding and limitations of fire. Firesetting behavior is often a symptom of the problem and may be manifested through stress and crisis in their lives.

Juvenile firesetting or the misuse of fire by children isn't necessarily arson. A myriad of terms have been considered to describe the misuse of fire by kids. They include juvenile firesetting, juvenile arson, child arson, youth firesetting, fire lighting, fireplay, and match play.

Judy Okulitch, the coordinator for the Oregon State Fire Marshal's Youth Fire Prevention Intervention Program says: "Language both reflects and molds thinking. The words we choose define our understanding of firesetting and our perceptions of juveniles displaying this behavior. Through the years, we have tried different words to better understand the intentional use of fire with children and adolescents. The word juvenile even became a problem for some. Juvenile was often shortened to "juve." A youth involved in the juvenile court system was a delinquent and that didn't fit the mode of our youth motivated by curiosity about fire. Youth who intentionally set fires for reasons that are not appropriate, i.e., to destroy, vandalize, get revenge or show power or control over others are "misusing" fire to satisfy their own needs. Likewise, the word "fireplay" has outlived its usefulness. "Fireplay" normalized the behavior and minimizes the potential for serious consequences, making it more likely the youth with "firesetting behavior" won't get the appropriate and necessary intervention. It follows that the words we choose to describe the behavior of children and adolescents with fire drives the intervention they receive. That is why we must choose our words—carefully."

The Suffolk County Fire Marshal's Office runs a Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program for Suffolk residents. Click here to learn about the Suffolk County Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program.
Video on Juvenile Firesetting and the resources available to families should children misuse fire