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Youth Firesetting and Conduct Disorder: A Brief Review


Forensic Scholars Today

Conduct Disorder 

With a global prevalence of 3.2% (Canino, Polanczyk, Bauermeister, Rohde, & Frick, 2010), conduct disorder is characterized by repetitive and persistent antisociality in youths under the age of 18, including deliberate property damage, fighting, theft, truancy, tantrums, lying, and disobedience to authority (Bravender, 2009). The onset of conduct disorder can begin as early as preschool, with the diagnosis becoming more prevalent in middle childhood (Silberg, Moore, & Rutter, 2015). The childhoods of boys and girls diagnosed with conduct disorder are often marked by parental abuse or neglect, inconsistent supervision, harsh discipline, and a large family size (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The parents of this population have often been convicted of criminal behavior themselves, and are more likely to have been diagnosed with a major mental illness such as a substance use disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. It is important to note that firesetting is one of the 15 criteria outlined for a conduct disorder diagnosis found in the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Despite conduct disorder being associated with serious adverse outcomes (see Table 1) and evidence-based interventions established (see Box 1), the condition goes largely untreated. Treatments for this population should be delivered within the Risk- Need-Responsivity framework (Bonta & Andrews, 2007) and carried out by a multidisciplinary team of mental health, educational, and youth fire intervention and prevention specialists when firesetting behavior is exhibited. 





Fergusson et al., 2005 


Klomek et al., 2009 

Substance Abuse 

Frick et al., 2014 


Colman et al., 2009 


Olino et al., 2010 

Lower Educational Attainment 

Fergussion et al., 2005 

Unplanned Pregnancy & Sexually Transmitted Diseases 

American Psychiatric Association, 2013 

Reduced Quality of Life 

Olino et al., 2010


• Anger Management 

• Empathy Training 

• Family Systems Therapy 

• Individualized Education Program 

• Medication 

• Parent Management Training 

• Relaxation Techniques 

• Social Skills Training 

• Trauma-Informed Care 

• Treatment of co-occurring psychiatric disorders

Youth diagnosed with conduct disorder sometimes engage in firesetting, but children and adolescents without this diagnosis can also display firesetting behavior. In addition, only a minority of youths diagnosed with conduct disorder repeatedly set fires. Hence, while there appears to be an indirect connection between the two, as the demeanor and mindset is similar between youth firesetting behaviors without conduct disorder and children and adolescents with conduct disorder who do not set fires, it is not currently believed that one causally explains the other (Stickle & Blechman, 2002). In fact, based on our professional experience, rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are far more common among youth who set fires than diagnoses of conduct disorder. 


In conclusion, although youth firesetting results in numerous injuries and deaths every year in the United States, the phenomenon receives relatively little research attention, with much of the research on the topic having been publish multiple years ago. When a youth with conduct disorder engages in firesetting behaviors, it is likely not caused by the disorder. As such, additional research is needed to examine which factors contribute to firesetting behaviors in this population. Some of the factors worth exploring include the moderating impact of ADHD and other behavioral and co-occurring mental health conditions, head injury, executive function impairments, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, adverse prenatal and postnatal experiences, and social skills deficits to name a few. Further research is also warranted in order to identify screening and intervention approaches most appropriate for identifying and treating firesetting behaviors in youth who have been diagnosed with conduct disorder. This is important, because training mental health, criminal justice, and youth fire intervention professionals to recognize and screen for various risk factors in youth diagnosed with conduct disorder is of great importance. These professionals could provide the opportunity for early intervention, resulting in long-term benefits to the impacted individual, his or her family, and society in general. 

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Author Biographies: 

Jerrod Brown, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor, Program Director, and lead developer for the Master of Arts degree in Human Services with an emphasis in Forensic Behavioral Health for Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota. Jerrod has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center in St. Paul, Minnesota for the past seventeen years. Pathways provides programs and services benefiting individuals impacted by mental illness and addictions. Jerrod is also the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies (AIAFS), and the Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Scholars Today (FST). Email: [email protected] 

Don Porth, B.S., is a fire and life safety consultant, having retired from 31 years in the uniformed fire service specializing in youth firesetting behavior and public education/outreach. Other involvements include heading the nonprofit “SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs” for 21 years. Through this involvement, he provided over 100 trainings to professionals across the United States and Canada. He serves as a principal staff member for the Youth Firesetting Information Repository & Evaluation System (YFIRES), a national data and case management system specifically designed for youth firesetting intervention programming. 

Kathi Osmonson, Deputy State Fire Marshal, coordinates the Minnesota State Youth Fire Intervention Team (YFIT). YFIT partners with law enforcement, mental health, justice and social agencies to sustain a network of professionals who collaborate to provide intervention. Her career includes volunteer and career firefighting with specialties in fire prevention education and youth fire intervention. She is a member of the NFPA 1035 Committee, and a contract instructor for the FEMA National Fire Academy. She has earned her Master’s Degree in Forensic Behavioral Health at Concordia University. 


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. 

Bonta, J., & Andrews, D. A. (2007). Risk-Need-Responsivity Model for offender assessment and rehabilitation. Ottawa: Public Safety Canada. 

Bravender, T. (2009). Adaptation and maladaptation to school. In W. B. Carey, A. C. Crocker, W. L. Coleman, E. R. Elias, & H. M. Feldman (Eds.), Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics. Philadelphia: Elsevier. 

Arson Prevention Bureau. (2006). Arson control forum annual report. Retrieved from documents/fire/pdf/154145.pdf 

Canino, G., Polanczyk, G., Bauermeister, J. J., Rohde, L. A., & Frick, P. J. (2010). Does the prevalence of CD and ODD vary across cultures?. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 45(7), 695-704.

Chen, Y. H., Arria, A. M., & Anthony, J. C. (2003). Firesetting in adolescence and being aggressive, shy, and rejected by peers: New epidemiologic evidence from a national sample survey. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 31(1), 44-52. 

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Colman, I., Murray, J., Abbott, R. A., Maughan, B., Kuh, D., Croudace, T. J., & Jones, P. B. (2009). Outcomes of conduct problems in adolescence: 40 year follow-up of national cohort. BMJ, 338, a2981. 

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Frick, P. J., Ray, J. V., Thornton, L. C., & Kahn, R. E. (2014). Can callous-unemotional traits enhance the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of serious conduct problems in children and adolescents? A comprehensive review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 1-57. 

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Klomek, A. B., Sourander, A., Niemela, S., Kumpulainen, K., Piha, J., Tamminen, T., Almqvist, F., & Gould, M. (2009). Childhood bullying behaviors as a risk for suicide attempts and completed suicides: A population-based birth cohort study. Journal of the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry, 48(3), 254-261. 

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Stickle, T. R., & Blechman, E. A. (2002). Aggression and fire: Antisocial behavior in firesetting and nonfiresetting juvenile offenders. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 24(3), 177-193.