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Frequently Asked Questions

(the answers provided here are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with a professional. We hope to provide perspective on the questions submitted)

Is it normal for my child to play with fire?

A. 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?

A. 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 outgrow?

A. 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?

A. In very rare instances, children may be afflicted with “Pyromania.” This is a very specific clinical diagnosis left to mental health professionals. 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?

A. 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?

A. 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.”

If unable to find other resources, drop us a line here at SOS FIRES. We have many contacts across the nation and have helped connect many families to local programs.

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?

A. 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 babysitters home. Once a child is equipped with the information to make good decisions, they can now begin to make them.

Consequences for the failure to follow the rules must also be clear. When rules are broken, consistent follow-through is very important.

Once the caregivers begin to lead by example, once the rules have been explained in a way that is age-appropriate for the child, and once the punishment for breaking the rules has been made crystal clear, most children will now behave in a very safe way. When children do not, that is a warning sign that you must find help. Do not hesitate to seek help. A child’s first fire is potentially as dangerous as the tenth.

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

A. This can be a challenging task if no efforts are in place within your community. The most critical part is to assemble all of the needed professionals, get them around the same table, and begin discussions. As a minimum, you will probably need the fire service, law enforcement, mental health people will to work with firesetting behavior, juvenile justice people, medical personnel working with children’s health/burn issues, child welfare organizations, and any other citizen’s/agencies invested in the safety of youth.

Beyond that, the sky is the limit. There are many ways to structure a program. The final shape of it usually depends on the resources the community has available.

The key components, regardless of the structure are typically begin with a means of Identification of kids who have set fire. This can be though fire responses or just the right questions being asked when kids enter other programs.

An Intake process is the next key component. There must be an organized and identified place where cases can be entered and tracked through the system. This helps both the system and the family remain on track.

A formal Interview/Screening process provides a consistent framework for the person performing the intervention service to follow. This is an important information gathering step that can provide a great deal of information. Several good interview tools are available today.

Next is to have a variety of Intervention Strategies in place. This is what connects the different professionals who will work with the child. 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.

Education is appropriate for all kids involved in firesetting behavior. But it must be geared toward their misuse of fire. Kids often cannot make the connection between what they did and some generic example or story. It must be delivered by a trained and qualified professional who understands the issue. The majority of firefighters are not skilled at this discipline.

Finally, a program must have a Follow-up component to evaluate its efforts. The continuation of the behavior is, perhaps, the most critical measure of success.

Every child will not have their firesetting behavior stopped. But with a complete, community approach to intervention, most can be stopped.

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

A. 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?

A. 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 a reason for concern or could he just be curious?

A. 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.

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.”

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

A. Two sources may prove helpful. One of our public schools has a classroom for autistic children and the teacher invited me to spend a few days in the classroom learning about these kids. The second source was Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. They have a developmental disabilities program that has a lending library and they sent me numerous videos and books. I found that there are many levels of autism, ranging from very low functioning to very high functioning. I rely on the parent/caregiver to provide me with information on the child’s level of learning. First and foremost with these kids is a plan for the caregivers. Where did the 7 year old get a lighter or matches? It is imperative that parents/caregivers understand their obligation to keep these kids safe. My suggestion is to work with the family on making sure that this child is in a safe environment (which includes proper supervision and no access to fire tools) at all times.

Another issue that helped me with autistic kids was attending a support group for the mothers of autistic children. I attended an “autism simulation” that the support group was having. To say the least, it was an eye-opening experience. The parents/caregivers shared “when they first knew their child was autistic.” For some it was apparent at an early age. For others, with high-functioning autistic kids, it was in the teen years after a long time of searching for help. I learned that some kids have extremely sensitive senses. (One mother said that her teen age son was bothered by the noise he could hear in the light ballasts and another told about her son’s extraordinary ability to “hear” when something was wrong with her car…she said she learned to “trust” him after ignoring warnings a couple of times and finding out he was right.).

During the simulation there was a lot of external stimulation (noises in our ears, vacuums running, touching, etc.) while a leader (teacher) was giving us (the class) instructions to which we were to pay close attention. At first those of us who participated were relatively unaffected, knowing what this really was. But…..after about 30 minutes of this it got pretty nerve racking and very difficult to concentrate and pay attention to our instructions. It
became apparent that if these kids were getting a high degree of distraction from outside sources (which were generally not apparent to us non-autistic folks) then it was extremely difficult for them to get the information that was being passed on to them. At any rate, it was just a “tip of the iceberg”revelation that I would encourage other to advantage of.

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

A. 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 intended his purpose for wanting to carry a lighter? If his purpose is legitimate and consistent with the tool that a lighter is, 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.

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