Non-Journal Articles

“Firesetters” and “Firestarters”: A Case Against Labeling?

By Robert Stadolnik, Ed. D.


For any number of years professionals in all disciplines who work with juvenile firesetting have expressed and demonstrated varying levels of comfort with the use of terms such as “firesetter” or “firestarter” to describe the kids they work with or as included within the names of their intervention programs. Some would argue that it is an accurate representation of the population they serve while others are disconcerted by describing a whole child by one highly negative behavior they have engaged in. There is a wide and powerful consensus that kids who engage in firesetting are a diagnostically, racially, chronologically, socio-economically, and intellectually diverse population and thus the idea that they possess a common set of characteristics by which we can distinguish them from “non firesetters” is hard to fathom. Can the non-firesetter of today can immediately become the firesetter of tomorrow? And if so, what does that mean?

Within the field of juvenile sexual offending the same debates, questions, and conflicts have arisen, and are maybe closer to a resolution and consensus than we in firesetting intervention are. In a 2006 article in The Correctional Psychologist titled “Sexual Offender Update:Labeling in Treatment-Helpful or Harmful?” by Dr. Lorraine Reitzel the question is explored in the context of the research and practice data that is available. She writes that previous research has supported a treatment and intervention framework that emphasizes the attainment of “good lives” for offenders through discussing offense behaviors as poor choices rather than as indicators of some underlying character. Additionally, Dr. Reitzel cites research that suggests that those who see themselves as needing to change behaviors, as opposed to changing themselves, may be more likely to comply with practice techniques in relapse prevention programs and that “maintaining some semblance of identity that does not fully embrace the label of sex offender is important in preventing further sexually assaultive behaviors”.

As we move ahead as a field it will be important for us to engage in the same type of discussions and debates to come to a unified language by which we can communicate. Personally, I have adopted the position that firesetting is a behavior and as a result in all of my assessments, trainings, and writings make a concerted effort to describe those kids I work with as “kids involved in firesetting” or “kids who set fires” as a means of de-stigmatizing them as well as supporting the point that firesetting is a behavior, not a diagnostic category.

About The Author

Robert Stadolnik, Ed. D.

Dr. Robert Stadolnik is a licensed psychologist, President of FirePsych, Inc., and the author of the book Drawn to the Flame: Assessment and Treatment of Juvenile Firesetting. Dr. Stadolnik partnered with Brandon Residential Treatment Center in 2005 to pilot a comprehensive, evidence-based firesetting assessment protocol for short-term residential placements. He has recently completed research studies on specialized firesetting populations including adolescents in residential care and adolescent females. Dr. Stadolnik consults to fire safety programs, residential treatment centers, public school systems, and state child welfare agencies. Over the past fifteen years he has completed or supervised over 1,000 firesetting behavior assessments and has provided trainings and workshops on a national level.