Why do children set fires?

Understand more about juvenile firesetting, what to watch out for, and what to do if a child or young person needs help. 

Children and fire

What are the signs of a child who plays with fire?

It's thought that 1 in every 4 fires in London is started by a child or young person. If you think your child – or a young person you care for – might be playing with fire, there are signs to watch out for.

7 tell-tale signs of firesetting

  1. Small burn holes in carpets or clothes.

  2. Charred paper in sinks or wastebaskets.

  3. Matches or lighters hidden in your child’s cupboards and drawers or under their bed.

  4. An unusual fascination with fires.

  5. Unexplained burnt objects in the home or garden.

  6. Signs of burns on windowsills.

  7. The smell of smoke on the child’s clothes or in the home.

What is firesetting and how can you stop it?

Why do children play with fire?

Children and young people start to play with fire for various reasons, ranging from natural curiosity in toddlers to older children using firesetting to express feelings of anger or emotional distress. 

Without help and guidance, this 'firesetting behaviour' can increase and lead to more serious consequences – serious personal injury and damage to homes, schools and property. If you are worried about a child, it’s important to act.

What is 'firesetting behaviour'? 

Deliberately starting fires, or playing with fire. This can seem relatively harmless – a fascination with candles or matches, for example – but left unchecked can escalate.

Research has shown that as many as one in two children will go on and repeat the behaviour without intervention.

What should parents and carers do if they're worried?

  1. Explain that fire can hurt and kill and they should stay away from fire of any kind.

  2. Tell them it is only safe for adults to use matches or lighters.

  3. Keep all matches and lighters out of sight and out of the reach of children.

  4. Use childproof lighters.

  5. Never leave children alone in the house or in a room where there is a burning candle, open fire or cooker on, even for short periods of time.

  6. Carry out regular checks for the telltale signs.

  7. Keep outbuildings, garden sheds and garages locked to prevent access to flammable items.

  8. Test your smoke alarms regularly – and make sure there is one in every room where a fire could start.

  9. Make an escape plan with your family and practise it.

How can we stop children playing with fire?

It depends on the child and their motives. There's a leaflet you can download at the bottom of this page, though if you're concerned about a child or young person and recognise the signs of firesetting, contact us for help and advice. Acting quickly can save lives.

Expert support for parents, carers, teachers and child support services

Our Juvenile Firesetters Intervention Scheme works with children and young people, up to the age of 18, who play with fire or have set fires. The service is free and since our launch in 2001, we have received nearly 4,000 referrals, helping to reduce deliberate fires and address fire safety concerns in all 33 London boroughs.

Young person with ignited lighter

Get help – how to make referral

It's quick and easy to refer a child or young person to our team, and we welcome referrals from parents, carers and professionals who work with children.

Get help now

More information

JFIS information leaflet

Download PDF (367kb)

Fire safety at home booklet

Download PDF (3,662kb)

What to do next?