Non-Journal Articles

Adolescent “Crisis” Firesetting: Meet Jonathan

By Michael L. Slavkin Ph.D.

Jonathan enters my office, throwing himself into the chair across from mine, frustrated that he is late for his appointment. His actions and expressions make him look like a little kid, sulking after not getting his way. The attitude he shows masks an adolescent begging for attention and affection. I have worked with he and his family for the past 5 months, with some positive success. Jonathan cusses under his breath, and glances at his watch, frustrated that it could have taken so long to get across the city to our meeting place and time. As quickly as the attitude comes, it is gone. Clearly, Jonathan wants to begin to talk about his week and the progress his family has made.

Jonathan he lifts himself out of the slouching position he originally took and sighs deeply, letting some of the tension out. He begins to chatter about the goings-on of the week: better grades in school, less need to verbally attack his siblings at home, some signs of affection from his overworked father. Jonathan rambles about trivial events, telling so much of what he needs and what he is missing. Love. Honesty. Attention. His father, now off welfare for 2 years and sober for 3 and-a-half years, has made a life for himself and his 3 kids, even without their mother, who left when he went sober.

Jonathan’s words tell me a lot about why he continues to set fires: his family is avoidant, distant, and sometimes overwhelmed with the day-to-day responsibilities that go with living poor. We have talked about his mother’s drinking and abandonment — Jonathan is still not clear about his feelings for her, and mourns his loss. Jonathan blames himself for her leaving, and has just begun to learn that there is a connection between his feelings and his firesetting.

When he first was referred to me by the fire department, they indicated that they had been called to his house on the East Side twice. Each time they came, the explosions had gotten worse although the destruction to the dumpster across the street was minimal. Jonathan’s second feat was to use explosives in the principal’s personal bathroom at school. Jonathan thought that the other kids would find it humorous, and that he would gain some respect. Instead, he gained expulsion for bringing “a weapon” to school, and removed himself even further from his peers.

The fire department could dismiss the fire in the dumpster, but they were worried that the second act was not just an incident of curiosity or a child’s wanton expression. Their beliefs were correct: Jonathan had set fires as a young kid, especially when his parents were out drugging.

Jonathan shares that he is going to get his life back on track. He puts up a front of independence, so easy for a 16-year-old to do. He began working at the fast-food restaurant down the block from their house for money one week after being expelled. They allow him to go to night school and to be there when his brothers get home from school. Jonathan usually feeds them dinner from the restaurant rather than making dinner for them himself. Lots of responsibility for a kid that just blew up the principal’s commode.

Jonathan mumbles that his father provided some one-on-one time for the two of them last weekend. The younger boys went to an aunt’s house for the day. Jonathan is amazed and awe-struck that his father spent 2 hours with him. Jonathan’s father has been working outside of family therapy about being more available, even when he is at work. He leaves notes of encouragement around the house for Jonathan to find when he is picking up. He hugs his son. These are difficult actions for a man that was emotionally unavailable during the first 15 years of Jonathan’s life. As difficult as it has been, Jonathan’s father is trying to be there and support his eldest son.

Sometimes things go smoothly, but more often than not, there are problems. Jonathan has difficulty dealing with the emotion, and shares that his father’s affection “freaks him out.” He is unsure how to handle the attention from his father, and appears fearful that it will leave just as soon as it came.

Jonathan also wants too much, too quickly. He expects friends to be there for him immediately following his first session in counseling, after years of not fitting in. Despite the discomfort with sharing feelings, he challenges that he wants his dad to spend hours with him on the weekends, even though he works six days a week, and often just gets enough time off to sleep. Jonathan’s younger brothers have not been acting out . . . yet., the youngest got caught fighting with a kid down the street a few weeks back. Jonathan, trying to be the most responsible of the kids, tries to fix it all, seeking praise from his father that sometimes comes, and sometimes doesn’t.

“I really love my family,” he shares, seeming somewhat ashamed of what he is saying. “I wish my dad were around to make things better, but I know he has to work a lot, so I just have to be independent. I have to be the boss, even when I don’t want to be.”

He seems sadder today. I ask him whether or not he has acted up this week. Jonathan shares that he is getting used to working in the daytime, taking care of his brothers in the evening, and going to night school. It is a difficult life for one so young. He hasn’t set a fire or been destructive since his first month of therapy. His anger seems to be reduced after having an outlet to talk through some of his loneliness and sadness.

The more Jonathan has talked about his feelings, the less destructive his behaviors have become. He believes he is getting better, seeing less need to act aggressively with his siblings, or trying to pick fights with his father (in order to get extra attention). I try to challenge him to connect his thoughts, feelings, and actions, hoping that if he will stop firesetting if he can cope with the sadness at his mother’s betrayal, his parent’s alcoholism, and the stress of being responsible for so much at such a young age.

“I wish they would be there for me more. There never seems to be enough time to hang out or talk” he shares. “I never realized how much adults have to worry about. He spends less and less time trying to put up a front, and more time working on being himself, sharing the reality of his situation.

“What happens with adults is not the same as it is with me. I spend so much time having to do so much. Aren’t adults supposed to do this crap? I should be doing other stuff.” Jonathan can identify the mess he has created, and can easily share the frustration that comes with taking responsibility for his destructive behaviors. I think he begins to share more of himself because he is aware that with these stories comes greater support.

Jonathan has decided to make a change in his life. It has taken only a few months for him to realize that the maladaptive behaviors, like attacking those who could give him support, have not been effective strategies at making connected relationships. He spends more time these days being responsible, focusing on what it takes to make it after choosing poor ways of gaining attention. He has more friends at work, feels closer to his family, and is more realistic in his expectations of others.

To help Jonathan reduce his firesetting, he found someone to trust. We spend time working on creating one healthy relationship: then try to model similar behaviors with others outside of the counseling relationship. We connect this feeling of security with the safety he wants with his father. I am sure to keep in touch with his dad, each of us informing the other of Jonathan’s emotional growth, progress at work, and social stability. In time, I his father will be able to see the emotional growth in himself, seeing what it means to be supportive, nurturing, and caring.

For youth like Jonathan, feeling safe and secure is so critical. His firesetting is an attempt to connect with others after feeling abandoned at home and with peers. Helping him see that he can connect with others in more effective ways will help to reduce the inappropriate behaviors he has displayed. By encouraging him to be responsible and create his own stability, while supporting what he is doing (rather than allowing him to go at it alone), we teach him to be in control and cope with a life that is difficult.

About The Author

Michael L. Slavkin Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Slavkin is a professor of education and developmental psychology at the University of Southern Indiana. He has worked extensively with kids who set fires and has provided fire professionals and clinical professionals with counseling/community education interventions for 15 years. For further information, contact Dr. Michael Slavkin at