Why Children Play With Fire, and How to Stop Them

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The fire that killed 12 people at an apartment building in the Bronx on Thursday night was started by a 3-year-old boy who was playing with the burners on a stove — which he had done before, his mother told investigators. The cause was heart-wrenching, but the behavior not that uncommon.

Daniel A. Nigro, the New York City fire commissioner, said the department gets 75 to 100 referrals a year about children who have a history of playing with or being fascinated by fire.

Preschoolers and kindergartners are most likely to start fires caused by play, and are most likely to die in them, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Four children died in the Bronx fire, but the boy who started it survived when his mother grabbed him and another child and escaped the building.

Nationally, fires caused by play and reported to municipal fire departments, accounted for an average of 49,300 fires per year from 2007 to 2011, the association reported. Such fires caused a yearly average of 80 civilian deaths, 860 civilian injuries and $235 million in property damage during that time period, though they account for a relatively small percentage of total fires.

In 2016, for example, there were about 1,342,000 total fires reported in the United States, according to the association. These fires caused 3,390 civilian deaths, 14,650 civilian injuries and $10.6 billion in property damage.

Younger children were more likely to set fires in homes, and older children and teenagers more likely to set them outside, according to the agency. Residential fires that were intentionally sent were more likely to occur between 3 p.m. and midnight. Lighters were the heat source in 52 percent of the home fires involving play, and 39 percent began in a bedroom.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are four intervention services for children, parents and caregivers to address juvenile fire-setting behavior: fire service, mental health services, social services counseling and juvenile justice.

Motivations and possible treatments

Psychologists have identified six motivations for why young people set fires, along with corresponding treatments, according to the American Psychological Association.

The most common fire-setters act out of curiosity and are nonpathological. These children, who tend to be 5 to 10 years old, generally do not understand the consequences of their actions. Interventions may include fire-safety education, evaluation for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and parent training.

Some children with these more complicated motives may require additional intervention, according to the association’s website:

A cry for help, either consciously or subconsciously. Depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or family stress can be contributing factors. Possible interventions: cognitive behavioral therapy, treatment for depression, medication consultation and family therapy.

Delinquency. These fire-setters are typically between 11 and 15 years old and show little empathy for others, but also tend to avoid harming others. These children may cause significant property damage and show common aggression and conduct problems. Possible interventions: behavior management, empathy training, relaxation techniques and treatment for depression.

A fixation on fire. Those in this category, including paranoid and psychotic children, may want to harm themselves. Possible interventions: intensive inpatient or outpatient cognitive behavioral therapy and social skills training.

Cognitive impairment or developmental disability. These children may struggle with good judgment but avoid intentional harm. Significant property damage is common with this group. Possible interventions: special education, intensive fire education and behavior management.

A desire for support from peers or community groups. This could happen during riots, for example, or in a religious fervor. Possible interventions: psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and family therapy.

Fire safety tips for children

Torine Creppy, the acting president of Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children from unintentional injuries, said that when it comes to fire safety, preventable measures need to be taken early. She recommends creating safety zones in the home that children know not to cross, particularly in the kitchen.

So many people cook with their families nearby and don’t create safe spaces between children and cooking surfaces, she said. “Use tape,” she said, and leave it there whether a parent is present or not.

If a child is curious about fire, parents may want to set up gates that prevent the child from entering high risk areas altogether. Parents must also remember to always keep matches and lighters away from children, she said.

Another precautionary measure: creating a fire escape plan and teaching it to your children. “We have fire drills at home and at school,” she said, “but how many families have them at home?”

“Consider two ways out of every room,” she added.

The fire protection association offers several safety tip sheets on fire topics including cooking, candles and heating.

NFPA Safety Tips – Young Fire Setters
Video by National Fire Protection Association

FEMA advises parents to always supervise young children, never leave matches or lighters within their reach and use child-resistant lighters. Parents should also teach children to let an adult know if they find matches or lighters.

“The most critical message for children to learn is that matches and lighters are tools, not toys!’’ the agency’s website says. “Parents should never use lighters, matches and fire for fun; children will mimic you, and when they do it unsupervised, tragic events can result. Praise your child for practicing responsible behavior and showing respect for fire.”

If you find yourself in a fire at your home, it is important to close the door when you leave to help contain the flames, Mr. Nigro, the New York City fire commissioner, said.

“Close the door, close the door, close the door,” he said, echoing a public service announcement that the New York City Fire Department contributed to in 2005.

In the case of the fatal Bronx fire on Thursday, the mother of the boy rushed out, leaving the door open, Mr. Nigro said. That allowed fire to shoot out of the kitchen and into the stairwell and the smoke to spread through the stairway of the five-story apartment building, he said.

But Ms. Creppy says it is crucial not to blame the parents. It’s all about educating caregivers, she said, and creating an situation in which decisions are made from a place of preparedness, not just panic.