It’s not unusual for kids to be attracted to fire. After all, it wouldn’t be a birthday without a glowing, candle-covered cake. And who doesn’t love sitting around a campfire at night? Even with the best efforts from parents, kids might play with fire. Most of the time this can be handled by explaining the dangers and setting clear ground rules and consequences for not following them.
Reasons why children start fires:
Curiosity— fire setting occurs in kids who have a natural curiosity about fire, coupled with limited knowledge of the dangers. Sometimes the lure of forbidden fruit may tempt young children to experiment with fire.
Opportunity—children find matches or lighters within easy reach.
Association– kids model family or peers who unwittingly abet inappropriate fire use. Mom’s smoldering cigarettes or dad’s trash fire in the yard won’t escape the keen eyes of children.
Trauma—pre-existing childhood trauma can lead children to vent frustration with bullying, victimization, or other life circumstances.
Stress – Fire setting is a behavior that releases accumulating internal stress. On the other hand, starting fires can be stress-and-danger-seeking behavior to relieve boredom in an uneventful life. The latter is often closely related to vandalism, shoplifting, and graffiti painting among juveniles.
Power – Fire setting is a means for juveniles who otherwise feel disempowered to attain power over people and/or the environment.
Acceptance– Fire setting can be motivated by a desire to gain acceptance from a peer or a peer group.
Attention- Fire setting is behavior caused in large part by the firesetter’s knowledge that it will produce a substantial reaction or response from the wider society, such as the arrival of police and fire departments.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO:
- Teach children that fire is not a toy. Let children know that even adults must follow special safety rules for fire.
- Reward your child for bringing you any matches or lighters they may find at home or on the playground.
- Be a good role model. Don’t leave candles burning unattended, etc.
When does experimentation turn to trouble? Sometimes kids seem to be especially preoccupied with fire and repeatedly attempt to set things on fire. That can signal emotional and behavioral issues that require professional help. Here are some red flags that, combined with fire setting, may indicate a need for help.
Recent changes in behavior
Temper tantrums, mood swings, impulsive behavior or excessive anger
Problems at school
Poor social relationships—child may be a loner
Other troublesome behaviors such as stealing, lying, or fighting
Child failed to get help to extinguish a fire
Shows extreme curiosity about fire
Recent losses due to death, health, divorce, loss of friendships, moves, etc.
Sad, withdrawn appearance
Poor self esteem
Boasts about fire sets
Fire was set out of anger or in response to a family problem
In a typical year in the United States, 300 people are killed and $300 million in property is destroyed in fires set by children. Children themselves are usually the victims of these fires, accounting for 85% of lives lost. If you suspect your child has a problem with fire, your local fire department or mental health clinic can put you in touch with people who can help.
Read Aloud Book:
National Fire Marshals Association produces an excellent book for kids aged 3-6. Children Are No Match for Fire costs $10 and a portion of the proceeds goes to juvenile intervention programs for fire starters.