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Is My Child A Fire-Setter? How Would I Know!?

What sparks the motivation of a child fire-setter?

The nature and meaning of children’s involvement with fire is strongly related to their level of cognitive development. Preschool children have limited understanding of cause and effect, or transformations, and cannot appreciate that even a small flame is capable of becoming a large fire. Nearly every day, most children see the adults in their lives use fire very casually. Adults often encourage children to use or exert control over fire, whether by holding candles in church or blowing out candles on a birthday cake. This can reinforce children’s idea that fire is not especially dangerous, and that they would be able to control it under all circumstances.

Curbing fire-setting among youngsters begins with understanding why they do it, fire and life safety educator’s say. Sometimes the behavior is more a symptom of a larger problem than a problem in itself. For example, a child may set a piece of paper or object on fire out of frustration or sadness. So is my child a fire-setter and how would I know?

Children and young people may play with fire for a variety of reasons. Fire is intriguing and therefore something that will attract a curious child from an early age. Improper fire behaviours usually start small and unnoticed.

In general, a fire-setter is any individual who sets a fire for various reasons. Accidental or curiosity fire-setting is defined as fire-starting behavior often by unsupervised children (usually age 5–12 years of age) with access to matches or lighters. In order to prevent and make children aware of the danger of fires many fire departments and educational agencies have teamed up and created teaching and educational material for children starting already in early childhood education.

Whereas a child fire-setter is usually curious about fire and has the desire to learn more about fire, a pyromaniac is more than just a simple fire-setter, he or she is one who has an unusually bizarre impulse or desire to set intentional fires. Pathological fire-setting, pyromania, is when the desire to set fires is repetitive and destructive to other people or property. Pyromania is a deliberate, planned, and persistent behavior.

Due to the relationship between fire-setting and antisocial behavior there is a need for interdisciplinary intervention for fire-setters that includes assessment and provides an individualized and developmentally appropriate approach. Those who treat juvenile fire-setters, says multiple factors–such as personality characteristics and family and social circumstances–drive most fire-setting behavior. Such factors help provide clues to whether the fire-setter’s behavior is pathological or non-pathological.

Characteristics such as aggression, sensation- or attention-seeking, difficulty interacting with others, deviance or conduct problems–all of which researchers have linked with fire-play. Children, who the assessments deem as curiosity fire-setters, tend to have a single incident of fire-play and often only require fire and life safety education. More often than not, lay people and professionals alike are surprised at the responses.

It is not only about the matches or lighters and the flame. There are six motive classifications that are associated with fire-setters:

  1. Vandalism – the mischievous or malicious act of fire-setting that causes damage to property.
  2. Excitement – this type of fire is set by the thrill-seeking arsonist for excitement, recognition and attention. There are some rare occasions that the fire is set for sexual gratification.
  3. Revenge – this type of fire is retaliation for a real or perceived injustice. This type of fire can result in deadly consequences.
  4. Crime Concealment – is an attempt to conceal another type of crime such as murder, burglary, or an attempt to destroy documents or records by fire. The arsonist believes that all of the physical evidence or the identity of the victim will be destroyed in the fire. Fires will indeed destroy some evidence of the crime; however guns, knives and bullets will survive a fire to some degree. With vehicle fires victims have been located in the passenger and cargo compartment, so make sure you investigate these areas. It is important for the investigator to remember that any crime that is committed can be covered up with an intentionally set fire.
  5. Profit – the profit motivated fire is set for a monetary gain or material gain. Fraud is often identified as a motive for arson. When hard economic times are felt by owners of private property and businesses, the owners may feel like the only way to get out from under the finance problems are to burn the property or business.
  6. Extremism – extremist firesetting is used to further political, social, or religious causes. These firesetters may work as individuals or as groups.

Even if an arsonist does have a psychiatric illness, this may not be a contributing factor in the fire-setting behavior.

Pyromania is an established psychiatric diagnosis; however, there are very few true pyromaniacs.  Adults vs youth! Pyromania falls into the diagnostic classification of impulse control disorders, along with disorders like kleptomania (stealing), intermittent explosive disorder (violent and destructive outbursts) and pathological gambling. These disorders are characterized by a failure to resist impulses, such as the impulse to light a fire. Simply, pyromania is the uncontrollable impulse to repeatedly set fires with no obvious motive (such as concealment of a crime, financial gain). A pyromaniac experiences arousal, pleasure, gratification, and/or relief when setting a fire, or when witnessing or participating in their aftermath.

In children the reasons are much less severe but just as deadly. Fire usually captivates children. It is normal for most kids at about age five to be curious about fire, or even start small fires. However, there are children who take this to the next level. The roots of a serial arsonist can be traced to childhood. The hallmark of a future arsonist is an adolescent with a conduct disorder.

Behaviors associated with a conduct disorder include aggression, cruelty to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness, theft, and disregard of parental or school rules. Youths with conduct disorders persistently violate the rights of others. When an adolescent with a conduct disorder starts a fire it will typically be with the intention of causing serious damage and perhaps endangering life. The budding arsonist is most often male and is impulsive. Some factors to consider include:

  • Circumstances of the incident. Children who play with fire without intent to do damage typically act impulsively, using ignition sources available at the moment. Youth with more complex issues are more likely to search out ignition materials and use accelerants, and may conceal these items until needed.
  • Appearance of remorse. Children struggling with emotional issues may not admit they set the fire, and rather than try to put it out may run away to watch the fire burn (this behavior in older children is different from preschoolers who don’t understand possible consequences and are simply afraid of “getting in trouble.”)
  • The child’s overall behavior. Aside from the fire involvement, are there other concerns about the child’s behavior. Does he have impulse control? Is he frequently angry? How well does he manage his emotions? What are his peer relationships?
  • History and frequency of fire involvement. A pattern of  purposely planned, multiple firesetting over an extended time period is more likely to point to underlying issues than engaging in more unplanned, sporadic episodes of fireplay.
  • Family and parental behavior. What is the parent’s history of fire involvement? What is the parent’s attitude toward the child’s fire-setting? Is parental supervision consistent and effective?  What is the family’s reaction to the fire incident?

Red flags and signs that adults should keep an eye out for:

  • Burn holes in carpets, bedding or clothing.
  • Charred paper or melted objects in bins or sinks.
  • Matches or lighters hidden in your child’s room, under the bed or in their school bag.

Children can be naturally fearless as they have little life experience and therefore a reduced ability to understand potential consequences of their actions related to fire. However, it is human nature to recognize patterns and learn through experience. For example, if a child touches fire and becomes burned, it is unlikely that they will ever touch fire again as they will have learned that fire equals pain.

Studies have found that criminals, more specifically sociopaths have a difficult time learning to be afraid of unpleasant stimuli, such as the fire example discussed above. This is why violent criminals are often reckless thrill-seekers.

These types of people usually also have trouble identifying their own feelings and that of others.

  • Children who start playing with matches or fire as early as age three.
  • Children who frequently engage in “daredevil” behavior, especially near fire.
  • Children who mix chemicals or engage in “secret” fire settings in which they try different mixtures.
  • Those who are noticeably excited while watching fires.

Disobeying a parent is a right of passage for many children, anything from little white lies, to throwing toys. Children can rebel at any point throughout childhood, from ages two to eighteen. Regardless of the commonality of troublesome children, it’s important to be able to distinguish typical rebellion from a more serious problem. At which point should a parent worry? When should a parent seek help?

The most obviously troublesome behavior in children is frequent outbursts of anger. This does not include the typical temper tantrum that every child has likely had over not getting their way. These types of outbursts are generally violent and a result of very little or no provocation.

The most common type of fire-setters are non-pathological fire-setters. They light fires out of curiosity or accidentally light them. These children often do not understand the consequences of fire-play and tend to be 5 to 12 years old. Interventions may include fire and life safety education, evaluation for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and parent training.

A cry-for-help. Children who consciously or subconsciously use fire to draw attention to a stress in their life. Common problems underlying this type are depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or family stress. Interventions may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, treatment for depression, medication consultation and family therapy.

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. A child can develop different levels of empathy ranging from no empathetic ability, empathy that is harmful to self or others, or well-balanced empathy. Empathy is a measure of how much one can identify feelings and emotional tones in other people.

Lack of empathy in children can also be understood as general meanness towards others. Children lacking empathy have a difficult time forming close attachments, use cruelty to gain power, and have manipulative tendencies. These might go unnoticed until they become overtly problematic.

Children should generally be able to easily make friends and understand others feelings. A child that has a hard time making friends or one that has friends but is mean to them is a sure-fire sign of future problems.

Delinquent: fire-setters who often show little empathy for others but tend to avoid harming others. Typically 11 to 15 years old, they cause significant property damage and often show common aggression and conduct problems. Interventions may include behavior management, empathy training, relaxation techniques and treatment for depression. Of course, children will be defiant at some point in their childhood, but when it becomes consistent it may be more than a simple rebellion. Oppositional behaviors in youth are precursors to the development of emotional and mental illness. In fact oppositional behaviors themselves can be a mental illness in young children that can become worse as the child grows if these issues are not dealt with. A child that consistently defies authority may be diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Severely disturbed: children with a fixation on fire, including paranoid and psychotic children who may want to harm or kill themselves. Interventions may include intensive inpatient or outpatient cognitive-behavioral therapy and social skills training.

Violence towards animals is one of the most telling signs that a child will later exhibit delinquent, violent and criminal behavior. There are different types of animal abusers including:

  • The Experimenter (age 1-6): This type of abusive behavior is a result of young age. Children in this category have not cognitively developed enough to understand that animals have feelings or that they are not to be treated as toys.
  • The Cry-For-Help Abuser (age 6-12): At this point, a child understands that it is wrong to harm animals but continues to do so which is a sign of a deep psychological problem. Many studies have linked childhood animal abuse to physical or sexual abuse of the child.
  • The Conduct-Disordered Abuser (age 12+): Preteens and teens that engage in animal abuse are typically involved in other delinquent behavior as well. The abuse may be a result of boredom, peer pressure from deviant friends or a means to achieve a sense of control. This type of abuse is the most severe and requires immediate intervention.

Cognitively impaired: developmentally disabled or impaired children. They tend to lack good judgment but avoid intentional harm; significant property damage is common. Interventions may include special education, intensive fire education and behavior management. The effects of childhood bullying can have significant long-term effects. A study published in Psychological Science revealed that bullied children were six times more likely to have a serious illness or psychiatric disorder as adults.

Unfortunately, the bullying doesn’t stop when a child leaves school. Being victimized can even lead to low self-esteem, poor social skills and the ability to be easily provoked. Each of these on its own can lead to violent behavior as a child struggles for control and self-worth. Put together it is no wonder that bullied children can turn into struggling, violent adults.

Sociocultural: children who set fires primarily for support from peers or community groups, such as those fires set during riots or in religious fervor. Interventions may include traditional psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy and family therapy. Violence seems like a clear indicator of a problematic child and recent evidence backs up this claim. Studies have shown that violent behavior in youth can predict that a child will engage in criminal activity before and/or during adulthood. IF a child’s parents have been notified about their child’s violent behavior at school, they shouldn’t brush this off as boys being boys or a girl asserting herself.

According to a study that followed children from youth to adulthood, children with the “highest degree of conduct behavior problems” were five times more likely to be convicted of a crime than those with lower scores.

Social isolation on its own is no cause for alarm; some children are simply less social than others, and some children have severe anxiety or shyness is just part of their personality. However, if a child exhibits social withdrawal in combination with a number of risk factors discussed in this article make sure to take note.

Many of the risk factors mentioned in this article lead to criminal tendencies later on in life due to social isolation or marginalization. For this reason noticing a sudden social withdrawal accompanied by gloominess or depression, is important to take stock of. If children feel isolated as well as being phsyicaly isolated they can develop negative thinking and inner dialogue.

Children need to feel loved and included in order to flourish. When they don’t feel this acceptance they can lash out immediately, or internalize their feelings and become troublesome later on in life.

Each type of fire-setting motivation comes with a set of concerns and issues that must be addressed. In the broadest sense, fire-setting is a behavior that includes both the accidental (e.g., falling asleep with a cigarette) and intentional setting of fires (with or without criminal intent). Intentional fire-setting is not always a symptom of underlying psychiatric pathology, nor is it always a criminal act. For example, interest in fire is nearly universal in children, and fire-setting is often due to curiosity in this age group.

Whether a fire may happen in school or at home, intentionally or unintentionally, fires set by children are always cause for concern. Scare tactics should be avoided for all ages. It’s tempting to think that giving a child a good scare about the consequences of fire would be an easy, one-time “inoculation” against future fire-setting. But if a child’s fire-play is the result of family or social issues, this approach could actually stimulate the behavior you’re trying to prevent.

Even if there aren’t such underlying issues, many children and teens won’t respond to a “fear appeal” – any more than most adults do. Scare tactics designed to get people to stop smoking, for instance, often fail because people feel they are being manipulated or threatened. Their responses range from defiance (“You can’t tell me what to do,”) to avoidance (“I’d be careful, no one would get hurt.”).

For younger children, fear can interfere with learning. A frightened child may simply stop listening.  And scare tactics quickly lose their effectiveness if the child does play with fire afterward — with no immediate dire consequences. Studies by the NFPA, as well as the finding of Fire-ED and countless other agencies, all confirm that children respond better to positive messaging.

For older children and teens, scare tactics can even cause a “blowback” effect. Consider the evaluation of “Scared Straight” type prison programs, which expose juvenile delinquents pre-delinquents to prison life and interactions with prisoners. Studies have found that these programs don’t change long-term behavior and in some cases seemed to increase the likelihood of delinquency.

Another tactic to avoid is attempting to satiate a child’s interest in fire by “safely” involving them with fire. Some adults assume that if they teach children “how to handle” fire, this will satisfy their curiosity and prevent them from playing with fire when adults are not present. In fact the evidence shows that with more practice with fire, a child will gain more false confidence in his ability to control it, which may encourage, rather than reduce, the behavior. 

Parents need to be aware that their own modeling of fire use sends unspoken messages. What they do can be more important than what they tell a child. Casual use of fire such as leaving a stove, campfire, grill or candles unattended, not only creates an immediate hazard but tells children that fire need not be treated seriously. Ignoring the smoke alarm, or going in search of the source of smoke rather than urging everyone to get out when the alarm sounds, sends a message that smoke and its cause is not a serious matter.

Parents need to know that supervision is just as important at home as outside of it.

Many parents assume that their children are safe when they are in their own bedrooms. In fact this is where most of the fires set by young children are started, often in closets. Many families are too casual about handling ignition materials and leaving them lying around on a tabletop or counter. Parents need to both monitor their children, and restrict access to ignition materials. Lighters and matches should be kept out of sight and reach, ideally in a locked cabinet.

Parents need to establish and stick to unambiguous rules about fire. They must firmly state to children that matches and lighters are tools for adults only. It’s important that this rule be clear and consistent. Many children will assume that if they’re allowed to do something with adult supervision, it’s really all right for them to do the same thing when alone. This is especially true if they’ve performed a fire-related skill many times without an incident. Many cooking fires start this way.

Take fire and children’s fire-play seriously. While fire-play is common and not usually a sign of serious psychological issues, it can cause serious damage, injuries and death. It should be a trigger for psychological evaluation and referral if necessary. Provide developmentally appropriate fire safety education.

Parents and caregivers need to educate themselves about the importance of supervision, modeling, avoiding premature assignment of fire-related responsibilities, having working smoke alarms, and planning and practicing a home fire drill.

Parents and caregivers should access fire-setting assessments that:

  • Are completed by highly trained and experienced clinicians.
  • Are comprehensive and well written.
  • Provide clearly articulated statements relative to fire-setting risk factors.
  • Utilize the “Massachusetts Model” (Stadolnik, 2000) for fire-setting assessment.
  • Incorporate several standardized measures of aggression, behavior, and personality functioning.
  • Are completed in a timely and professional manner.
  • Provide treatment and intervention recommendations specific to fire-setting behavior.
  • Are completed according to “best practice” standards.


Terry Penney avatar

Oh I’m just a simple safety janitor in life. I clean up the messes and try to keep things running so folks get home safely. On top of 30 years law enforcement service, a past life in the reserves as a commissioned officer, plus training and volunteer fire service, 18 years as fire chief and paramedic. I have taught world wide and to all age groups in life. From kids to adults to grand parents and with a common goal everyone is going home safe regardless if they are working or in school or retired. From Dangerous goods, to fire safety and prevention to why incident investigation are critical to PREVENTION not punishment and finger pointing. And all those small initials at the back of my name have NEVER saved a single person, but they have made folks go home to loved ones and not the morgue.

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