Juvenile Fire Setter

Children playing with matches, juvenile firesetting, fire starting: these are phrases that describe a problem which has been receiving growing attention. The United States Fire Administration reports that between 25% and 40% of all fires are set by children. In some areas, this figure is as high as 70%.

Why do so many children light fires? Why does any child light fires? More importantly, what can we do to stop them?

Most experts agree that the best way to understand a child's firesetting is by looking at the context and motivation for the behavior. There are three types of firesetting, and for each type, a different strategy is used to stop the behavior.

​Type One

Little Risk

The child that has the least amount of risk for firesetting is:
  • Usually 3 - 7 years old
  • Mostly boys
  • Possibly hyperactive
  • Usually alone
  • Usually in a closet or under a bed
  • Hidden origin; matches or lighter with ordinary combustibles
  • Usually panics if fire gets out of control
At this age, this child is merely curious about fire and wants to learn about it. Because the child doesn't understand the consequences of his / her actions, the fire can cause major damage. The proper response to this is thorough fire safety education.

Type Two

Definite Risk

The risk of firesetting increases dramatically when the child is:
  • Usually 7 - 14 years old
  • Mostly boys
  • Sudden change in life or recent stress / trauma
  • Could be alone
The child may react with destructive anger, destroying someone's clothing or possessions. The location of the lit fire is specific. The fire resembles the child's cry for help, to show his / her inability to cope with sudden changes. The child will continue the firesetting until the stress is relieved or until a safer way to cope is taught. This is a pivotal time for proper education and counseling.

Type Three

Extreme Risk

This type is the most dangerous and destructive of the three. The child is:
  • Usually 10 - 14 years old
  • Almost always boys
  • History of school and social problems
  • Almost always alone
  • Other aggressive and problem behaviors
At this stage, the fire is either random or ritualized, usually in or around the home. What makes it a dangerous situation is there is often no clear cut motivation for the firesetting plus he / she is likely to repeat the behavior. The only solution to this is counseling.

​Firesetting Facts or Myths?
  • Myth - It's normal for children to play with fire.
    • Fact - While curiosity about fire is common, fire play or setting is not, and it can be deadly.
  • Myth - It's a phase that he / she will grow out of.
    • Fact - It is not a phase and you must deal with it immediately or it will persist.
  • Myth - If you burn his / her hand, he / she will stop.
    • Fact - If you burn your child, he / she will be scarred, that's all. You must address the real reason for the fire before the child will stop.
  • Myth - If the fire are small then it's no big deal.
    • Fact - All fires start out as small fires. Anytime a child sets a fire, he is endangering himself and the people around him. That's a big deal.
  • Myth - Firesetting is pyromania.
    • Fact - Pyromania is a disorder while firesetting is not. Firesetting is a behavior which can have many causes and can be stopped.
Most firesetting can be prevented by these five steps:
  • Teach very young children that fire is a tool we use to cook food or heat the home. It is not magic but it is dangerous and only for adults to use carefully (use the example for driving a car or using power tools).
  • Keep all matches and lighters out of the reach of very young children. Even a 2 year old can easily work a cigarette lighter.
  • Praise or reward children when they bring matches to you.
  • Explain why it is important to use matches only when needed and with an adult present. If an older child is curious about matches, show him / her the proper and safe way to use them.
  • Examples must be set. Always be careful with matches and fire. Keep your home safe and let your children help you.


If you discover burnt matches or papers, or have any other reason to suspect that your child is setting fires, you should take immediate action. First of all, put all matches and lighters out of reach and explain to your child why you are doing this. Teach your child why you don't want him / her to play with matches and lighters. If the firesetting continues, or if the first incident caused any damage, your child should be evaluated to determine what is behind this behavior.

Many police and fire departments, along with social service agencies, work together with the child and parents to form a communication system titled networking. Together, the agencies involved and the family can effectively address the firesetting issue. Once the risk is identified, appropriate intervention can be applied.

The key to success is early intervention. Call the Youthful Firesetters Hotline at 800-446-1589 and you will be given a name and phone number of a Fire Prevention Educator who can assist you. Call your local police or fire department and ask them what type of program they may have for dealing with youthful firesetters. With proper education and counseling you can help end juvenile firesetting.