Thursday, September 27, 2012

Playing with Fire

"Has deliberately engaged in fire setting with the intention of causing serious damage."
Appropriate fire-starting
 This criteria is one of about fifteen criteria used to diagnose a child with Conduct Disorder, a sad precursor to Antisocial Personality Disorder, a disorder seen in adults whom we often call "Sociopath".  You may be asking, "What is all this diagnostic mumbo jumbo about, Dr. Momsie?" Well, blame it on Momma Kat, who has inspired me today to write about "someone playing with fire - literally or metaphorically- and probably shouldn't be."
A lot of parents have probably heard the warnings about behavior such as fire-starting that could be an early indication of Conduct Disorder.  All parents probably have at least an ounce of concern regarding our child's behavior.  We send up little prayers, consciously and sub-consciously, "just help them be normal."  No one wants to raise a serial killer.  And, most of us won't.  Most loving, responsive parents will have children who are similarly "normal."   Even a few problematic behaviors, such as fire-starting or even animal cruelty may be passing phases or temporary acting out.  In fact, I've known several young men who acted in monstrous ways toward animals as children, who are quite well adjusted as adults. 

Even Dr. Momsie herself had a little fire-starting phase.  Really!  As a child I was obedient and conforming, probably the furthest thing in existence from Conduct Disordered.  But, I loved a blazing fire. There is just something fascinating about the warm glow of a flame.  It's relaxing and cozy.  That's why they put those fireplaces in Starbucks and bookstores.  And, there is something appealing about watching an object being consumed in flame, being transformed from a tangible object into ashes. 

Let me give you a couple of examples, one of which may be classified as normal curiosity and the other a potential fire-starting problem:

A young girl around the age of ten, let's call her DrMomsina, likes playing with fire.  She often burns matches, lights candles, and plays with cigarette lighters.  One dark and stormy night, the electricity goes out in her home.  This is not a rare occurence in her small town with turn-of-the-century electrical wiring.  She immediately lights a collection of candles in her room.  "Well, isn't that nice," she thinks.  "Beautiful, controlled and calming.  Maybe I'll just burn this kleenix a little to see what happens."  The next thing she knows, the flame on her kleenix quickly burns up to her hand.  Her immediate reaction is to throw the flaming tissue into her trashcan.  And, wouldn't ya know, the entire contents of the trashcan immediately burst into flames.  She rushes out of her candle-lit room to let her father know that she's set her room on fire.  He calmly tosses the trashcan out the back door into the rainy night.  DrMomsina never caught her room on fire again.  Chalk it up to normal curiosity.

Little Fuego is also around ten years old.  He also likes playing with fire.  He often burns matches, lights candles, and plays with cigarette lighters.  One dark and stormy night, Fuego is wandering around his neighborhood.  His parents aren't quite sure where he is, nor do they really care.  Before Fuego left the house, he stole his mother's lighter.  He escapes a sudden downpour by slipping into his neighbor's shed.  Before long, Fuego is running out of the shed and back into his home.  He listens to the wee-aah, wee-aah of the firetruck sirens zooming into his neighborhood.  There is something pleasant and exciting about this to Fuego.  Fire-starting sends his adrenaline rushing, and he begins to continually seek the same type of rush he recieved that dark and stormy night he lit his neighbor's shed on fire.   This is more than normal childhood curiosity.

So, what is the difference between DrMomsina and little Fuego?  DrMomsina did not develop a pattern of distructive behavior, and her reaction to the fire she started was fear.  Fuego, on the other hand, started the fire with the intention of starting damage, derived some pleasure from his fire-starting experience and was engaging in a variety of delinquent behaviors (stealing, running away, etc). 

It is really very rare for children to be diagnosed with Conduct Disorder (about 2%).  So, parents, if this Halloween your otherwise normal little ghoul lights a fire in his trashcan, don't panic.  Just calmly toss it outside and return to your pumpkin carving.



  1. I really enjoyed this post. I'm a new follower. Found you through Mama Kat. I wrote about the same thing. Well...the same topic...completely different story about playing with fire. Sometimes I do look at my son and think "Man I hope he doesn't kill anyone some day..." It's encouraging to know (hope) that some of the more irrational behaviors may be just a passing phase. Let's hope so!

  2. Hi there, just stopping by from Mama Kat's Writing Workshop!

    I was completely fascinated by fire as a kid - and, okay, I guess I still am. There's something so intoxicating about the way a flame moves. That being said, I have seen firsthand the destruction a fire can cause and have no wish to see it again.

    I hadn't realized that an attraction to lighting fires was connected to conduct disorder. Glad that my kids have shown no interest in fire so far! ;)

  3. Great post. I liked how you compared the two different types of fire starting characters. Puts it all into perspective. Whew... I'm glad I never experienced anything like that raising my five children. Lucky me!


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