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Treating Kids Who Play With Fire : Experts Probe the Angry Mix of a Firesetter's Emotions

April 02, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

It was a trap. But Robert didn't know that. Or that he was being watched.

The one-way windows hid the adults peering out at the small boy, alone, crouching and crying in the shrubbery lining a walled patio.

Locked in his immobilizing misery, he ignored--for the moment--the toys invitingly scattered on a bench. Hidden among the stuffed animals and other playthings were more ominous temptations--matches, candles, a lighter.

For those behind the blank-eyed windows of the hospital, the issue was simple: Would Robert, 5, yield to his fascination with fire? As a toddler he had turned on the kitchen stove and was rescued by his mother seconds before grease from a frying pan splattered all over the room. One Halloween he had created a waxy mess trying to light a jack-o'-lantern. Just before last Christmas he set his brother's bed on fire, the final proof to his family that Robert was indeed a different sort of child.

Superficially, Robert (not his real name) is easy to pigeonhole. He is a firesetter, one of a troubled group of children--mainly withdrawn males from all social and economic levels, and often as young as 2 or 3--who have a seemingly primeval relationship with fire. Setting fires bolsters their emotionally dwarfed lives by demonstrating and/or dealing with turmoils they cannot express otherwise.

Some estimate that children and juveniles, many with troubles like Robert's, are responsible for up to half or more of the 1 million arson fires in this country each year. Others guess that children set 10 times as many fires as are ever reported. But no one really knows the size of the problem because firesetting, though much publicized in recent years, is still a malady in search of an early diagnosis and precisely defined social dimensions.

Over the last two or three years, however, the firesetting syndrome has begun to receive systematic attention from the mental health establishment. Six- to eight-week programs aimed at rechanneling firesetters' errant behavior have been developed at a few psychiatric hospitals, supplementing earlier programs set up by parents' groups and fire departments. All of these hospital programs, three or four at most, are located on the West Coast, including one at the CPC (Community Psychiatric Centers) Horizon Hospital in Pomona that started in January.

Designed for the most severely affected children--whose firesetting behavior is only the brightest strand in a tangle of difficulties--most of these programs are still in their early stages. Even so, a more detailed profile of the firesetter is beginning to emerge. It is a complicated picture, a mosaic of anger and depression that is being pieced together with clinical techniques like those at Pomona where Robert is being treated.

It was there that Robert, the program's first patient, recently underwent what the staff calls "the patio test," an intentional re-creation of the emotional climate that leads to firesetting. By bringing submerged anxieties to the surface, therapists hoped to make Robert aware of his behavior, giving him at least some understanding of his emotional makeup. Also, they hoped to lead him into discussing his feelings rather than acting out his frustrations. It is always appropriate to talk, but not to vent feelings through destructive behavior, said child psychologist Lynne Perry Ph.D.

A few minutes before he was left by himself on the patio, his mother had told him she was leaving the hospital to spend the day with his father and older brother at an amusement park. It was the kind of message meant to summon up Robert's jealousy and anger, the blurred mass of emotions that he had learned to focus with flame. A couple of minutes later Perry, using a spurious phone call as an excuse, had left too. Perry's exit was intended to be the final spark to Robert's volatile state. Above all else, his mother said, Robert hates to be alone.

At first he cried and cowered in a corner. Then he took out his feelings on a punching bag hanging from a tree, showing the frustration and rage that have marked his life. At one point he picked up a pair of scissors and jabbed the bag, an action reminiscent of the time he cut up drapes at home.

This was the third time Robert had been subjected to the test. In the other exercises he had not played with fire, had, in fact, tossed matches away, a sign that his treatment was going well.

But now he could not resist flirtation with his old friend.

He picked up a match and made a half-hearted attempt to strike it before dropping it on the ground.

The action was eloquent evidence that Robert, though making progress, had not yet broken the spell that grips him.

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