How to stop a teenage fire-starter

By Vanessa Stockley
Director, Wonderland: Kids Who Play With Fire

  • Published

As almost 50% of fires started deliberately in the UK are lit by children and teenagers, fire services are running more intervention schemes for at-risk youngsters, like 14-year-old Hulya.

"Other people drink and smoke, I just set fire to things."

Hulya stood in her bedroom in her north London home and showed the evidence of her habit of setting fires.

"This is a burn mark on the floor where I set fire to all the matches in my room, which wasn't very good," she admitted.

Pointing to the door, she said: "Here I got an aerosol can and sprayed it round here and then lit it and it just went up."

She said she set fires continuously and thought she knew why.

"I think I like taking control of how it will end up.

"So I can take control if I wanted my room to burn down, or I can take control if I wanted it to be a little fire that I can stomp out whenever I wanted to. I think that's what it is."

Disastrous consequences

In many ways Hulya is a regular teenager, learning to live with a strict parent and the confusion and difficulties of entering adulthood, but the way she handles these issues can have disastrous consequences if they go unchecked.

She was referred to the London Fire Brigade Juvenile Firesetters Intervention Scheme headed up by Joanna Foster, a specialist in child and adolescent mental health.

Image caption,
During counselling Hulya discovered she lit fires because she "wanted attention"

Joanna uses a variety of techniques to get to the bottom of why young people set fires. They depend on the age of the children she is counselling and can include drawing and puzzles.

In one session Hulya was shown a number of cards with words on them and she was asked to point out which of them relate to why she lit a sparkler in her home.

Hulya picked out "boredom" and "getting attention from mum".

When probed further it seemed for Hulya, like for many others, fire had become an important tool in getting attention from a parent.

"Sometimes mum just seems a bit more busy with other things or other people," she admitted, "so I kind of have to bring the attention back down to me. Even if it's bad attention, at least it's kind of there."

It can be extremely difficult for parents dealing with a child who sets fires, and they are often riddled with feelings of guilt, fear and helplessness.

For Hulya's mother Nuran it felt like a direct attack on her parenting: "I had been thinking it's my fault, it's my fault, I've made her this way, I've brought it upon her.

"If someone said to me, 'Yes, it's your fault that she's turned out this way', I'd think that's it, I've failed as a mother, I've failed as a human being."

Both Hulya and her mother filled in questionnaires to get to the bottom of their relationship and had counselling separately and together.

Joanna Foster talked through with Nuran what had come out in her sessions with Hulya so she could better understand why her daughter had been lighting fires.

"This is a girl who wants to get better," Joanna told Nuran.

She said Hulya's behaviour was "an important part of her testing her relationship with you and her identity, and I think Hulya needs to be the teenager she has to be".

Nuran admitted it was difficult to hear that attention-seeking was a cause: "I try and please everyone, but I don't seem to have pleased my daughter, and that's horrible."

Becoming closer

Joanna Foster sees children from all walks of life.

The reasons that they set fires range from a fascination with the flame, to a need to assert their position in the household, which is especially common when they feel threatened by the arrival of a new baby or parent's partner.

Image caption,
Hulya and her mother Nuran said the counselling had brought them closer together

The courses are extremely successful with 90% of the young people they help never setting fires again. Nuran and Hulya said the course had changed their lives.

For Nuran it helped her accept that she was not to blame: "Working with Joanna helped me to understand that it wasn't my fault and that we needed to start communicating better.

"It's been a long journey but in the past year, Hulya and I have certainly become closer."

For Hulya it helped her to understand herself and her relationship with her mother better.

"I felt that nothing in my life was within my control so I set fires to be in charge. Now I understand that my mum is there to guide me."

The Kids Who Play With Fire is on BBC Two 15 June 2100 BST, it is part of The Wonderland series and can also be viewed on the iPlayer.

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