For parents, the dangers of fire are so apparent that the sight of a child anywhere near a flame is enough to send them scrambling. And fortunately, most kids are afraid of fire and understand that it can hurt them and others.
But it's not unusual for kids to be curious about fire, too. After all, we enjoy campfires and singing over birthday candles. That's why it's so important to educate kids about the dangers of fire and to keep them away from matches, lighters, and other fire-starting tools.
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.
But sometimes kids seem to be especially preoccupied with fire and repeatedly attempt to set things on fire, which can be a sign of emotional and behavioral issues that require professional help.
Why Kids Set Fires
Young children who set fires usually do so out of curiosity or accidentally while playing with fire, matches, or lighters, and don't know how dangerous fire can be. During the preschool years, fire is just another part of the world they're exploring. Unfortunately, these fires tend to be the most deadly because kids in that age group don't know how to respond to a fire, and may set it in a small, enclosed space, such as a closet.
As kids get a little older, they might be fascinated with fire. It's fairly common for them to do things like light paper with matches, set things on fire using a magnifying glass, or play with candles or other things that have a flame. That's usually not a cause for concern.
But if a school-age child deliberately sets fires, even after being reprimanded or punished, a parent needs to talk to the child and consider getting professional help. That's especially true if the child is setting fires to larger objects or in areas where the flames can easily spread and cause injury and damage.
Talk with your doctor or consult a mental health professional if your child exhibits behaviors such as:
- adding more fuel to fires in the fireplace, grill, or campfires, even when told not to
- pocketing matches or hiding fire-starting materials
- lighting candles, fireworks, and other things, despite being told not to
Kids might set fires for any number of reasons. They may be angry or looking for attention. They may be struggling with stressful problems at home, at school, or with friends. Some set fires as a cry for help because they're being neglected at home or even abused. Even if they know how dangerous fire can be, they might have other problems that involve difficulty with impulse control.
Whatever the reason for firesetting, parents need to get to the root of the behavior and address underlying problems. It's important to consider seeking professional help as soon as possible to prevent serious damage or injury.
If Your Child Sets a Fire
If you discover your child setting a fire, don't ignore it or assume that with punishment, your child has learned the lesson. Because even one small fire can have disastrous consequences, it's vital to stop the behavior immediately. Many kids who set fires do so repeatedly, especially if there is no intervention.
If your child is very young, prevent access to the tools that can start another fire. Keep matches, lighters, and any other sources of fire safely out of your child's reach and view.
Talk to your child about how dangerous fire is and how it can hurt your child and your family. If you haven't established any specific rules about fire, this is a good time to do so. Explain that, just like other things that are off-limits (like touching knives or the oven), matches and lighters are things only adults should use.
If your child is beyond the preschool years (around age 5 or older) and is setting fires, talk with your child's doctor, school counselor, or a mental health professional. You might also want to contact your local fire department — many have programs designed to teach kids who have set fires about the dangers and consequences of firesetting.
Preventing Kids From Starting Fire
- Keep your house safe. Never leave matches or lighters in a room where a child spends unsupervised time. If you have preschool-age kids, keep matches out of sight and locked up. Although many lighters are labeled child-resistant, none are fully childproof so make sure these are inaccessible too. And never leave a burning candle and a young child in the same room unattended.
- Teach kids about fire safety. Make sure kids understand — from a young age — that even a small fire can be dangerous and deadly. Keep small children far from the stove (at least 3 feet away) while it's on and explain why. Teach kids to tell you when they find matches or lighters or if they see other kids carrying them or playing with fire. Teach them what to do if their clothes catch fire (stop, drop, and roll) and what to do if there's a fire in your house.
- Set a good example. Use fire only in appropriate ways — to light candles or as a tool in your grill, camp, wood stove, or fireplace. Never amuse kids by playing with matches or lighters, or even burning candle wax. Show them how you always put out fires completely when you are through with them and that you never leave a fire burning when you're not there.
- Don't allow smoking in your home. It's more difficult to keep lighters and matches away from kids in homes where adults smoke. Children in these homes also see adults using fire repeatedly throughout the day, which can influence their behavior.
Parents play an important role in making kids aware of the dangers posed by fire and establishing ground rules about how to handle it. By keeping matches and lighters out of reach and staying alert to signs that a child may be playing with fire, you can help ensure that your entire family stays safe.
Reviewed by: W. Douglas Tynan, PhD
Date reviewed: January 2011
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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