Juvenile Fire Setters

Juvenile firesetting, fire starting, pyromaniacs, and children playing with matches, are just some of the phrases that are used to describe children who become overly interested in fire, or who have previously set fires.

Should we be concerned about this? Absolutely! National averages show that 25 – 40% of all fires are attributed to juveniles. In some parts of the country, that number grows to 70%! There are even instances where parents have taken turns staying awake at night because their child had set so many fires. They resorted to this because they did not know where to go for help. Help is available!

Being interested in fires is a part of growing up, especially for boys. Interest in fire is, in and of itself, not something to get overly concerned about. So when should a parent be concerned about fire play or setting fires? While this is not an easy question to give a general answer to, a simple rule of thumb for young children is, is this the first time a fire has been set, and has someone already explained the dangers to the child? If this is not the first fire, and the child has been told of the dangers, then some type of assistance should definitely be sought. If the fire was set out of anger or for revenge, then help needs to be received immediately.

Almost twenty years ago the United States Fire Administration developed a program to help fire service personnel and other concerned parties categorize the child into one of three “levels of concern”. Once it is determined what category a child falls into, then the most appropriate way to help the child can be made.

Many times the child is setting fires as a way of getting attention because of something going on at home. It may be due to a change in the family structure such as a birth, death, or marriage. It could also be due to frequent moves, lack of attention from being left home alone for a few hours before or after school, or even a parent going back to work. The reasons are many. The goal of talking to a child involved with fire is to determine why the fires have been set, and to redirect the child’s action into something less dangerous.

After an interview is conducted, which includes the parents, the child will fall into one of three categories. The first is curiosity. It is almost always a boy, usually less than 7 years old. The fires are set in “hidden areas”, under the bed or in a closet, and the child panics when the fire gets out of control. The fire is usually set because the child is curious and just wants to experiment and find out more about fire. The best treatment for this child is usually fire safety education.

The second category is concern. Again this is usually a boy, aged 5 – 12. The child may be alone at the time of the fire, and there often has been sudden change in the family structure. The fire is often symbolic, and it is not uncommon to involve someone else’s clothes or possessions. This is a “cry for help”, usually over an inability to cope with the new changes. Treatment is fire safety education along with counseling to help resolve the stress(es) felt by the child.

The third category would be extreme concern. This is mostly boys over the age of 10 years old. There is a history of school and /or social problems or behaviors, and the child is alone most of the time. Most fires are set in or around the home without any set pattern or motivation. This could be a child who is deeply disturbed, or who may be involved in gang or cult activity. In these cases, education will not do much good until the underlying problems are first resolved, so counseling is the critical first step to stop the fire setting behavior. In very extreme cases, that may involve placing the child in a hospital. Treatment for these individuals is counseling, in conjunction with fire safety education.

What can parents do to help prevent firesetting? Teach children at very young ages that fire is a tool that helps us cook food, stay warm, etc. It only becomes dangerous when not treated carefully. Like all tools it should be used only by adults. Keep all matches and lighters out of the reach of young children. A perfect toy for a young child is one that is small, shiny and has movable parts. That describes a cigarette lighter perfectly. Children as young as 18 months old have been known to set fires using a cigarette lighter! Have the child tell you when they find matches, then praise them for doing it. If older children are interested in fire, teach them the proper, safe way to use matches to light the grill, birthday cake, etc. Tell the older children that you will let them light matches, but only if done correctly and only under the supervision of an adult. Set a good example, children are copycats and will do what they see their parents do. Keep your home fire safe, and let any older children help you. Older children take pride in being the protector of younger siblings.

There are many myths that people have about firesetting, such as whether or not it is normal for children to play with fire. While simple curiosity of fire is normal, fire setting is not, and that can be deadly. Myth – a child will outgrow the habit of lighting fires. Fact – studies show that children do not outgrow this, and the problems must be dealt with to prevent the fires from increasing in number and intensity. Myth – if you burn his hand, he will stop. Fact – all you will have done is scare and abuse the child. The root cause of the fires must be addressed to stop them. Myth – small fires are no big deal. Fact – all fires start small, and they will grow rapidly.

What should you do? Teach your child why you don’t want them to play with matches or lighters. If the firesetting continues, the child should be evaluated to determine what might be behind their behavior. Once this is determined, appropriate action can be taken.

Where can you go for help? Most fire departments have individuals trained to screen the child and family to determine a level of concern. They are not family counselors. They are there only as a screening tool, and to offer ideas that the family can utilize to curb this dangerous behavior. If your local fire department does not have trained personnel, they can refer you to a fire department or another organization that is qualified to assist you.