Is it normal for my child to play with fire?

While curiosity about fire is a common issue with almost all human beings (usually in the form of campfires, candles, fireplaces, etc.), the use of fire by children is a very dangerous behavior. A tragic situation can be created the first time a child misuses fire, or the same tragedy could occur after months of misuse. Adults must instill in children the idea that matches and lighters are tools, not toys. If adults lead by their example, children will usually gain a better understanding. This leaves children with the idea that while fire is okay, it is an important tool that is only for adults

If I burn my child’s hand, will that make them stop setting fires?

To burn a child’s hand for setting a fire will teach them that they don’t want to get burned. However, most children do not believe they (or anyone else) will be injured by a fire they set. Most often, children do not think about the fire extending beyond the object they are igniting or that they will have it under complete control. This lack of knowledge is what makes fire so dangerous in their hands. Children need to learn why their behavior is unacceptable and what is expected of them. Teach children to tell an adult when matches or lighters are left about the house or on the street or playground. When children understand what is expected of them, not just what is wrong with their behavior, they can perform better.

Is firesetting a phase my child will grow out of?

A child’s interest in many things comes and goes. The same may occur with fire. However, each time a child misuses fire, they are at great risk for injury or to cause damage. It is far too dangerous a behavior to ignore until “it runs its course.” Immediate steps must be taken to address the behavior and bring it to a stop. Intervention programs are designed to do just that.

Are some children obsessed with fire?

In very rare instances, children may be afflicted with “Pyromania.” Pyromania is very rare, but is a possible diagnosis. In the greater majority of cases, children are simply curious and have poor information about the dangers of fire. In some cases, the child is reacting to a crisis or stressors in their life. Whether lack of knowledge or a crisis of some sort, the behavior can typically be tracked back to something other than an obsession with fire. It should also be noted that the longer the child is allowed to engage in the misuse of fire, the more normal it becomes for them and the harder it is to “undo” the behavior. If your child is misusing fire, act quickly to intervene before a tragedy occurs.

If I make a child light hundreds of matches, will it deter his/her firesetting behavior?

It will most likely be unsuccessful. Children have most likely learned their firesetting behavior through social learning (i.e. observation and imitation) and are interested in experimenting with this observed behavior. Within this context, lighting matches may serve as a reinforcer rather than a deterrent. Repetition or rehearsal is one of the most common and successful forms of increasing a child’s ability to repeat or recall a given behavior at a future time (i.e. rehearsal increases a child’s ability to remember). Observation and imitation, compounded by rehearsal, can reinforce the behavior making it very difficult to deter.

Educationally, a good way to deter a child from continuing firesetting behavior is to:

  • Educate the parents/caregivers on how to significantly limit the child’s access to ignition sources
  • Educate parents/caregivers on child supervision techniques and responsibilities
  • Teach the child, in a cognitively appropriate manner, how to make consistently good choices about match/lighter use (or lack of use)
  • Educate the child, at an age appropriate level, about his/her responsibility as it relates to the issue.

The idea is to focus on the behavior that is desired rather than the behavior that is causing a problem. With this in mind, begin providing the child with the necessary knowledge and terms they will need to perform in a safe and successful manner, then check their comprehension of that knowledge. Have the child apply or practice the knowledge and comprehension. Have the child break down and/or analyze the lesson they just completed. Have the child bring the information together by explaining why all of the steps and knowledge are important. A very important step is to have the child form an opinion of what they have learned (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy) and be able to communicate (at their level) what the learning meant to them. Following such a cycle when teaching will enhance the quality of education and increase the chances of the lesson being remembered in the future.

What resources are available for parents who are looking for help?

In most cases, your local fire department should be your best point of contact. However, not all fire departments have chosen to address the problem of children playing with fire. You may find information through your state’s State Fire Marshal. Their number will be found in the blue pages of the phone book under “State.” States organize their fire departments differently, but there should always be a point of contact for you. Look in your local phone book or search the internet for your state’s fire services page.

If you need help finding resources, contact MatchBook and we will help connect you with a local program or contact. Please remember, if you encounter a program or agency that uses tactics that, you as a parent, do not support, consider a second opinion. While this field has come a long way in the past two decades, there are some who have not chosen to join along. You know your situation and child best.

What kind of information do I need to get for my child so he/she will stop setting fires?

Many caregivers do not understand why their child is setting fires. A firefighter has visited the child’s classroom or the family has gone to the neighborhood fire station. The caregivers have even told the child that they will kill someone if they continue playing with fire. So why does the behavior continue?

The approaches taken above, while important, do not always focus on the problem at hand. Teaching a child to “Stop, Drop, and Roll” does not give them the information they need to understand the dangers of fire. Knowing what to do when a smoke detector sounds does not emphasize that matches/lighters are dangerous tools for adults only.

The information needed to quell a child’s firesetting behavior must address realistic things you want the child to do. They must recognize matches and lighters as a tool. Too often, adults do not treat them that way. They must know what to do when they encounter matches or lighters in the home, on the playground, on the sidewalk, or at the babysitter’s home. Once a child is equipped with the information to make good decisions, they can now begin to make them.

How can I help start a juvenile firesetting intervention program in my community?

This is a challenging task if no previous efforts are in place, but statistics show that firesetting intervention programs do work to treat and prevent juvenile firesetting. A good starting point is to begin a local discussion between fire service, mental health, burn care, school and juvenile justice professionals. The juvenile firesetting community is ever-growing and there could very well be trainings, conferences, or other opportunities close by. Check out MatchBook’s Community Calendar for more information.

The structure of the program will depend on the available community resources, however a means of identifying kids who have set fires, is typically the best way to begin. This can be accomplished though fire responses, the right questions being asked upon entry to other programs or a system of recommendations. Intake is a formal process to enter a child into a program. The process therein ensures the youth will not be lost in the process or slip through the cracks.

A formal interview and screening process provides a consistent framework for the person performing the intervention service to follow. This is an important information gathering step that can prove critical to the success of the program. Several good interview tools are available today.

Different intervention strategies align resources needed to address the underlying problems driving the behavior. It may be education, mental health support, juvenile justice intervention, medical evaluation, or a range of other services. No single organization is going to completely resolve the behavior. It takes a team approach to match the necessary resources to the needs of the child.

Evaluation is necessary to measure the impact of the program. The continuation of the behavior is, perhaps, the most critical measure of success but customer service is a key consideration.

And lastly, make sure to utilize the MatchBook community in your effort. The easiest first step is to subscribe to MatchBook. Contact us to let us know how we can help.

If my child sets a fire, does that mean he/she is an arsonist?

Arson is a very misused term. Arson is a criminal definition of a behavior that meets specific criteria (which can differ from state to state). It usually requires the child to be of an age at which they can understand the consequences of their actions. Their actions also must meet certain criteria, such as intent to do damage, etc.

With this in mind, it should be apparent that not all children who set fires can be considered arsonists. It should not, however, be misunderstood to mean that a child-set fire of any type is not potentially dangerous. Some of the most innocent acts with fire by children as young as three have caused the death of another (if not the child themself). Conversely, even older kids, who are intent on setting fires, may be unsuccessful in accomplishing their goal and have a fire that appears minor.

The size of the fire or age of the child is not a good indicator of the level of concern for the firesetting behavior.

Only a careful interview that is designed to help determine the child’s motivation will begin to find such answers.

Are there ways to make a contract with my child to influence their future firesetting behavior?

Sometimes, a contract with someone a child respects can help motivate them to change their behavior. This respected individual can be a parent, teacher, firefighter, police officer, or anyone important to the child. The conditions for their behavior can be spelled out on paper (in terms understandable to the child) and the parents, the respected individual, and the child can all sign off on it.

A good contract should include a reward for the appropriate behavior and consequences for not meeting the conditions of the contract. Both the reward and consequence should be things that are important to the child, not the adults. For example, if a child is very fond of visits to the library, an additional trip or other treat might make good rewards. A specific time frame that is realistic and obtainable is critical as well. This also needs to be geared to the child’s age.

Of utmost importance is the follow through for both rewards and consequences. A parent can lose credibility very quickly if they don’t stick to an agreement. Clear rules and expectations give children the tools necessary to make good decisions.

My grandson has recently been setting fire to nail polish, hair gel, cologne, etc. Is there reason for concern or could he just be curious?

You should always be concerned when a child engages in the misuse of any tool, which fire definitely is. Your concern does not necessarily need to be out of concern that he has some kind of underlying problem, but more that he may not understand the consequences of his actions. Most kids who engage in fire play do not intend to injure, kill, or destroy. They usually want to see “what will happen”.

Sometimes, it helps to replace fire with “gun” or “power saw.” If he were engaged in the same experimentation and/or activity with one of these items, what would your level of concern be? While he may be capable of doing many things, his risk of injury from fire activity is great, and should be tempered with parental involvement. We too often assume children “know that fire is dangerous.” However, the truth is, there is little foundation for this understanding being offered by parents or even in schools.

If the problem seems to have a deeper meaning and is accompanied by other unusual or acting out behaviors, then you should be concerned that the explanations or rules that make clear the accepted use of fire may not deter his behavior. Regardless, if his fires are extending beyond his control and resulting in damage or injury, they can be construed or deemed a criminal act, such as arson.

I have an autistic child who sets fires. What can I do to make my child and family safe?

There are many autism specific resources for caregivers and families. The first and most important step to keeping everyone safe is to maintain a safe environment that keeps matches and lighters out of reach and includes proper supervision at all times.

Some caregivers first realize their child is autistic at a very early age. For others, with high-functioning autistic kids, it can be in the teen years after a long time of searching for help.

Support groups are one autism specific resource. Some have “autism simulation”, which entails an external stimulation of noises and touching whilst trying to understand instructions. This usually allows people who do not have autism, to understand how nerve racking and tough to concentrate it is during instructions when being distracted by outside sources.

I have a 12 year old son who would like to carry a lighter. Is this safe and/or appropriate?

No, it is most likely not safe or appropriate for a 12 year old. Your son is at a very pivotal age where he is ready for more adult and mature responsibilities. These are important, but perhaps not nearly as important as the question of function. Matches and lighters are tools. Regardless of age, this simple issue holds true: just like a sharp knife or power saw, no one should carry or use matches/lighters unless it is for a specific and productive purpose. In most cases, a 12 year old boy will not have a ready purpose, with the exception of things like Scouting. In those cases, training and supervision are built in.

So a better question is what is his purpose for wanting to carry a lighter? If his purpose is legitimate and consistent with what a lighter does, then it is probably all right. Keep in mind, however, that he is at an age where peer pressure can influence even the most responsible youth in the wrong direction. Matches and lighters are dangerous and sometimes deadly tools. They should be treated as such by everyone, especially adults, who present the greatest teaching model for kids. To use it otherwise is playing with it or treating it like a toy.