Matches and lighters in the hands of a child can be just as deadly as a gun. Which is why anytime a child is caught playing with fire it needs to be treated with the utmost urgency and seriousness. The good news is that most kids who play with fire are merely bored or curious, and are not budding pyromaniacs. Still, you know what curiosity did to the cat, and it kills children just as readily. There are also a few cases where a child’s fire starting is compulsive, and needs to be addressed through professional help. This information will help you discern which is which, and offer guidelines about what to do when a child is caught playing with fire.

Signs that a child is playing with fire

  1. Their clothes smell like smoke or gasoline when they come into the room.
  2. They disappear for chunks of time and then can’t give you an account of what they were doing.
  3. You find burnt matches or charred material in dark places such as under the bed, in the closet, behind furniture or in other nooks and crannies.
  4. 4. You notice charred vegetation outside that comes from an unknown source.
  5. When children set fires in the home, the most common area is the child’s bedroom. They also tend to play with matches in their closets and under their beds, in their bed under the sheets, or other dark places where they can see their creation. These are also usually the most dangerous places they could choose to start a fire.
  6. Make a habit of checking under beds and in your child’s closet for burned matches or any evidence that your child may be experimenting with fire.

Why kids play with fire

There are several reasons that kids experiment or play with fire:

  1. Kids are curious, and fire is just plain cool. You can admit it. Like thunder or lightning or tornadoes, there’s a certain mystique about an open flame that can be alluring to everyone. Children are naturally driven to explore everything in their environment, and so it’s no surprise that many children might eventually be compelled to experiment with fire, ESPECIALLY IF THEY HAVEN’T BEEN WARNED AGAINST IT.
  2. They may learn the behavior from other children.
    1. They may see adults playing with fire (ever watched how a smoker may fiddle around with a Zippo or lighter?) or see adults using fire in alluring ways that resemble play.
    2. It can make them feel powerful. Children naturally derive power from how they manipulate their environment. When they build and then destroy a block tower, they feel powerful. In squishing a bug or stomping on an ant hill, they can feel powerful. When they are able to do something that physically alters the world, it gives them a sense of control. Fire is one of those things. Manipulating a flame and directing it to consume, creating this (seemingly) living force that you nurture and grow and (seemingly) control; this can be an attractive prospect to any child. Children are small and often feel powerless in their society, yet they crave control just as much as any adult. On an unconscious level, these feelings of power and control are partly what make playing with fire so enjoyable. This is also why children from abusive, neglectful, or high-conflict homes can be more prone to compulsive fire starting: it’s an escape from their otherwise chaotic, uncontrollable lives, one where they hold all the power.

Children at risk for playing with fire

Children in a home with smokers are twice as likely to curiosity play with fire than those in non-smoking households. If you have a member of your household that smokes, be sure to take extra precautions to explain to your children the hazards of playing with fire, and make sure you have a responsible smoker, who does not leave his or her lighter or matches lying around the house.

What to do if you discover a child playing with fire

  1. The first thing you should do is calmly ask them where they learned such behavior from. This is important: in a number of cases, children pick up the activity from another child, and finding this out could keep other children out of harms way. If this is the case, you need to call the other parents and let them know what is going on. Don’t be accusatory in your tone; simply let them know this is what your child said, that you don’t know if it’s true or not, but that they might want to question their child about it or check for signs that their child is playing with fire. Refer them to this website for instructions about how to check for signs that a child is playing with fire. Just be sure you phrase the question “where did you learn this” (not who did you learn it from) which might lead them into naming a scapegoat who isn’t actually involved.
  1. The second best question to ask is: Where did they get the lighter? Where did the matches come from? Somewhere or another security has been been breached to allow them access to such dangerous materials in the first place. You need to find out this access point, and fix it.
  1. In a non-condescending way, ask them what made them want to play with the matches or lighters. Ask questions such as: What made you think of this? What did you want to happen? What did you think would happen? How many times have you played like this before? What’s fun about this activity? These are questions that should help you get to the root causes of their fire starting.

Keeping kids from playing with fire

If you’ve discovered your child playing with fire, these guidelines will help you put a stop to the habit and prevent them from continuing fire play in the future.

  1. Sit them down for a heart-to-heart talk. Pull them aside to a quiet room – you want this to be an uncomfortable experience that conveys the significance of what they were doing. Use your most serious tone of voice to explain why this is such a destructive activity. Explain that fire is not a toy; it’s a dangerous tool for adults to use very carefully.
  1. It’s alright to put a little fear into them. Some fears are healthy. So let them know that every year, tens of thousands of kids JUST LIKE THEM start larger fires because they’re playing with a flame. These cause property damage, burn up all their toys, and sometimes even burn the kids themselves up or hurt/kill someone they love, like a mother or father. Let them know that if they aren’t able to stop on their own, you might need to take them to a professional for their problem.
  1. Make them aware that the consequences of their behavior is a loss of trust from you and a possible loss of privileges and freedoms. Explain that you need to be able to trust they will make safe decisions, and that if you can’t trust that they’ll do this on their own, you’ll have to start restricting their freedoms, which might mean anything from not playing with friends to not being able to play in another room by themselves.

It’s not necessary to punish a child the first time over an incident of fire-play that originates out of curiosity; especially if it’s a younger child in preschool or elementary school, so long as they understand that any future instances WILL be met with punishment and restricted freedoms, since this is a sign you can’t trust them to make safe decisions on their own. Unless it’s a compulsive behavior, most children will find the threat of losing their parents’ trust plenty enough motivation to keep them from doing it again.

  1. Repression of a desire, rather than extinguishing it, tends to create bigger, uncontrollable monsters out of that desire. Thus one of the surest ways to create a compulsive obsession is to repress a natural desire. For most kids, their curiosity about fire is not so strong that repressing it will translate into further problems. It’s not the same as a natural instinct. Yet for those whose curiosity might be strong, you want to be sure to offer ways that they can satisfy this desire in a safe and responsible way.

So come up with a way to reward children’s curiosity when they act responsibly. For example, set aside times when you can start a campfire in the backyard and roast marshmallows. During this time, allow them to help make and attend to the fire under close adult supervision. (This also provides an opportune time to talk with them about their curiosity or about what is going on in their lives in general.) Accompany this privilege with the clear message that if you catch them playing with fire on their own, not only will they be severely punished, but they’ll lose this privilege of being able to explore their curiosity safely. Explain that you’ll always work with them to satisfy their curiosity, but not if they run off and do dangerous things on their own.

  1. If a child’s playing with fire seems compulsive rather than the product of curiosity or youthful shenanigans, you will need to schedule an appointment with a child psychologist – preferably one who is experienced in treating kids for pyromania. Compulsive behaviors of any sort are generally the product of underlying symptoms, and there’s no way we could even begin to address such complexities here.
  1. Most of all, keep all fire-making tools and accelerants locked up, while increasing supervision. Kids can only play with fire in environments where adult supervision is either lax or non-existent.
  1. If it occurred in a group or with another child, consider the possibility that peer pressure may have been involved. If it was, talk with your child about ways they can stand up to such pressure, and we would strongly suggest that parental monitoring be a necessary part of any meetings with those friends in the future, at least for a while. Peer pressure can be extremely difficult for a child to go against, and even the best of kids may struggle with it.
  1. Some local fire stations offer a sort of “scared straight” program in which they talk with kids about the dangers of playing with fire. Call your local fire station and ask if they offer (or know of) any programs for kids who have been caught playing with fire.