Yakima Youth Firesetter’s Program
IS IT NORMAL FOR MY CHILD TO PLAY WITH FIRE?Yakima Youth Fire Setters Coalition
Frequently Asked Questions About Child Fire Setting Behavior
-Each situation is unique-
Curiosity about fire is a common issue with almost all children. The unsupervised use of fire by children, however, is always cause for concern and action. Tragedy could result the first time a child misuses fire, or similar results could occur after months of misuse.
Fire play is a learned behavior in young children. They are introduced to fire through the actions of adults and older children in their life. Unknowingly, families establish accepted behavior at campfires, barbecues, around the fireplace, and on holidays like Christmas, 4th of July, and birthdays. Adults are responsible to instill in children the idea that matches and lighters are tools, not toys. Only as adults lead by their example will children gain a better understanding that, while fire is a beneficial and necessary part of our lives, it is also an important tool that is only for adults.
IF I BURN MY CHILD’S HAND WILL THEY STOP SETTING FIRES?
Only when there are clearly understood expectations of children can they be prepared to meet those expectations. Educating your children as to what unacceptable fire play is should be the first step. The second step is helping them understand why this behavior is unacceptable.
To burn a child’s hand for setting a fire will teach them that they don’t want to be burned and is an unacceptable practice. However, most children do not think about the fire extending beyond the object they are igniting nor do they consider the possibility of a resulting injury to themselves or others. They also assume they will have the fire under complete control. This lack of knowledge is what makes fire so dangerous in their hands.
Teach children to tell an adult when matches or lighters are left about the house or on the street or playground. Instill a respect by example using caution and care in everyday circumstances involving fire.
IS FIRE SETTING A PHASE MY CHILD WILL OUTGROW?
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?
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 chronic stress 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 more difficult 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 FIRE SETTING BEHAVIOR?
It will most likely be unsuccessful. Children have most likely learned their fire setting 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 of the undesirable behavior 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 fire setting 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 an age 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 learned and be able to communicate (at their level) what the learning meant to them. Are there ways to make a contract with my child to influence their future behavior? Sometimes a contract with someone a child respects can help motivate him/her to change his/her behavior. This respected individual can be a parent, teacher, firefighter, police officer, or anyone important to the child. The conditions for the 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 enjoys 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 the agreement. Clear rules and expectations give children the tools necessary to make good decisions.
IF MY CHILD SETS A FIRE, DOES IT MEAN HE/SHE IS AN ARSONIST?
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. This does not mean that a fire of any type set by a child is not potentially dangerous. Seemingly innocent fire play by children as young as three has resulted in the death of others as well as themselves. Even with deliberate fire setting behavior involving older children who are intent on setting fires, they 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 reliable indicator of the level of concern for the fire setting behavior. Only a careful interview that is designed to assess the child’s motivation will begin to uncover such answers.
WHAT KIND OF INFORMATION DO I NEED TO OBTAIN FOR MY CHILD SO HE/SHE WILL STOP SETTING FIRES?
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 fire setting 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 babysitter’s 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.
If the parents or guardians of the child seek help for the child, will their neighbors and friends find out? All intervention and counseling is kept confidential. Parents of a juvenile fire setter often hesitate to seek help for their child. The ramifications of a child accused of setting fires can be devastating. Parents fear alienation from their family, friends, and the community. In addition, repeated fire setting is a cry for help. Even though you may fear these situations, the information gathered can help direct the focus of our assistance. Remember, all information remains confidential.
|IF WE CONTACT THE COALITION,
WHAT HELP WILL WE RECEIVE?
|#1 Consultation with an interventionist regarding:
#2 Screening tool used for assessment: