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Understanding Youth Firesetting Behaviors

To understand youth firesetting behavior completely is probably an impossible task. Professionals have struggled with it for decades and it has likely existed since the discovery of fire. However, there are many clues that solid research and direct work with youth can provide.

Firesetting is, in it’s simplest form, an act of curiousity. Children strive to learn and do this by exploring their environment. Fire makes an attractive draw because of its beauty, color, movement, and mystery. This attraction is compounded by the ceremonial and celebratory ways in which we introduce it to children (birthday candles, holidays, religious ceremonies, etc.). It is also used for functional tasks by adults, but often not with an eye for safe practice (igniting cigarettes, barbecues, fireworks, etc.). As children learn, they learn a great deal by what they see. They see fire as an integral part of our life, but often not something that their caregiver presents as a dangerous item.

Without clear information to put fire into a proper perspective (a dangerous tool in the household), children may explore fire and ignition items without parental guidance. Children may not have a negative experience right away and continue to grow bolder in their experimentation. This can lead to more dangerous behaviors and increase the potential for problems. However, the first experimentation with fire can be equally as destructive or deadly. Every misuse of fire has the potential to cause damage, injury, and death.

Children who experience some type of stress or crisis in their lives may also turn to fire as an “acting-out behavior.” In some ways, it may be a form of communication when they are otherwise not able to put their crisis into words or no one seems to be listening. The crisis may not always be obvious to the adult onlooker. Some children will internalize their crisis and it may not be obvious until these acting-out behaviors begin to appear.

Addressing firesetting behaviors, regardless of the cause, begins with the family. The child’s caregivers must be involved in changes that will allow the child to live a safer life (the caregivers are often contributing to the availabilty of matches/lighters or are sending the wrong message through their use of the items). Education for the child and family is a critical component for family safety. But this education must be done with purpose and with sensitivity toward the child’s situation. Age, capability, neurological conditions, and many other factors play into how effective education can be for a child. It takes a well versed professional to provide this service.

Many would think that a problem related to fire is a fire service problem. Quite the contrary is true. While the fire itself is a fire service issue, the solutions to why kids set them may fall to many other resources in the community. Children in stress or crisis may need the support of mental health professionals to help them understand and cope with the issues creating the crisis. Sometimes, the crisis is surrounding the child in the form of their family and the family will need assistance to get back on track. Medical conditions can contribute to children being in crisis or lacking the capacity to learn the way other children do. Community resources are needed for these cases. And in some instances, legal intervention is appropriate or required. Coordination of all these disciplines is vital for an effective community response to firesetting behavior.

The issue is far more complicated than these few paragraphs can explain. Hopefully, this web site will provide many of the valuable resources to begin your understanding of youth firesetting behaviors and the skills and resources necessary to address this community problem.