How to help young child with anxiety/fear of fire
October 7, 2013 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Precocious 6 y.o. daughter has suddenly developed an intense fear of fire. If the stove is on, she is sobbing or screaming or fretting. Same thing with the (outside) grill and my neighbor's fire pit. Logic, reason, discussion are all fruitless; as long as there is visible fire, she's terrified. How to help her cope?

About a month ago, she came into the kitchen and noticed the flame on the stove top (same stove we've had since before she was born) and just about had a kitten ("Daddy the fire is too big! It's scaring me!") So yay that she's vocalizing her fears. In response, I picked her up away from the stove and empathized with her fear ("I hear that you're afraid, and it's okay to be afraid"). I pointed out that the fire was away from anything flammable, and it was heating the food, and I could make the flame bigger or smaller as needed. Normally when she's scared of something, she's all over me to pick her up and shield her, but in this case she absolutely doesn't want me to pick her up or put myself between her and the fire or anything other than make the fire go away. She's getting to the point where I'll pick her up at school, and on the way to the car, she'll ask me if I'm cooking anything on the stove at that time. So:

1. What concrete steps can I take to help her with this specific fear? And
2. Is there something bigger-picture that I may be missing?

I can't isolate a specific trigger for this, either. If I knew she'd seen something on TV/youtube or whatever, or even a picture of a house on fire, then I'd feel like I had something to start with. She's in first grade in the same school she went to Kindergarten, so I know she's had fire drills and already discussed fire safety, although I imagine in somewhat more detail than last year.
posted by disconnect to Human Relations (21 answers total)
You haven't mentioned asking her about what it is that she fears about the fire. You might want to get her talking, see what she thinks might happen, why it bothers her, where she learned about it, and so on. It's possible she fears the fire for entirely different reasons than you think.
posted by shivohum at 4:01 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I was 6 (or maybe 7), I saw a fire safety film that scared the bejesus out of me. At night I would see flames licking under my bedroom door, etc. I was absolutely terrified. I think that probably my little mind was not able to process a film about "here's what to do IN THE REMOTE CHANCE that there's a fire" and instead thought fire was a thing I was likely to encounter at any moment and I had to be ready to make a ladder out of bedsheets and climb out the bedroom window. So I guess what I'm saying is you need to talk to her about what she knows about fire. I bet she saw or heard something and totally misinterpreted it.
posted by HotToddy at 4:18 PM on October 7, 2013 [22 favorites]

I remember as a kid being really stressed and fearful about getting my family out of the house if there was a fire. I had basic fire safety teaching both at home and at school and I took it really really seriously. I wonder if she could have picked up some of those messages from the drills or fire safety teaching at school. It's great that she is expressing her feeling about the fire specifically -I wonder if there may be something deeper than that.
posted by bookrach at 4:19 PM on October 7, 2013

Best answer: I was terrified of fire as a kid, specifically because of a horrendous fire prevention video the local firehouse showed us in first grade. The SCBA demonstration with a huge man who looked like a clean-shaven lumberjack totally made things worse, as did a glimpse of the news on my grandmother's television, showing a fully involved house fire and a crying family. I obsessed over keeping doors shut to prevent fire from creeping in and getting me, and I ran into the kitchen whenever I heard the gas stove turn on to make sure no unattended cooking was magically happening... Then I bolted to get away from it in case it jumped out of the burner to get me.

What worked for me was several tear-filled conversations followed by arduously scientific explanations (far away from fire) as to how combustion worked, why it didn't happen spontaneously, and how remote a chance it was that a house fire could happen to our family. Then my dad demonstrated with a very very small fire on the back driveway, to show how fire had to have certain elements to get started. I vaguely remember him taking apart the gas stove to show me that the fire didn't just live in there. Then slowly desensitizing me to fire by cooking with my mom. All this happened slowly but repeatedly over the course of a month or so, after my dad teased apart exactly why I was freaking out.

And now, two decades later, I'm a professional firefighter. Go figure.
posted by skyl1n3 at 4:23 PM on October 7, 2013 [69 favorites]

My experience with the school fire safety film was word-for-word the same as HotToddy's. It seemed to be my first realization that the world (and my house) was not as safe as had been previously represented to be, and that may also be your kiddo's thought process.
posted by sageleaf at 4:25 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

as a kid I really hated fire drills at school - Though the sound of the alarm was probably just annoying to adult ears, on my sensitive young ones it was actually painful. Maybe she's getting the same thing and is associating the pain with fire?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:35 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

My fear of fire as a kid came from two things: the same damn school safety films that everyone else is mentioning (thus fear of sudden homelessness, loss of toys/books/pets, etc.), plus the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (because fire --> witch suddenly showing up --> NIGHTMARES).
posted by scody at 4:44 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

2. The stories we tell ourselves. "What if instead of calling them fears, we called them stories."

I agree with skyl1n3 about having conversations about fire when fire is not happening. When she's caught up in her story about fire, she's not going to listen to or undestand your story about fire.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 4:55 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a firefighter.

I don't have any bright ideas about broader strategies to employ, but what about bringing her down to the station? If you live in southern California or somewhere in the South, I can connect you with a station or provide a tour. Perhaps giving her a different, positive association for fire might help? She might even meet some firefighters she likes, and possibly take a picture with one that you could get printed and put up on her desk.

If you'd like help connecting with a local fire organization, let me know - but you'll find that your local station will be remarkably responsive and friendly if you just walk in (subject to other emergency/training things going on).
posted by arnicae at 4:58 PM on October 7, 2013 [18 favorites]

Yeah I fully blame my school for giving me a fear of fire, those videos were NOT ok. I couldn't sleep unless everything was pitch black because in my mind light indicated flames so if someone would walk by before I was asleep and turn on the hall light or something I would flip out. I wouldn't sleep in the house for like 3 days after our smoke alarm went off (this was a big issue because my mom cooking and the smoke alarm going off went pretty much hand in hand).

My grandfather, the firefighter, did a lot of talking to me. I basically assumed he spent every shift putting out giant house fires and saving people from the flames, turns out he didn't do that very often. He took me to the fire house and talked a LOT about fire with me until it wasn't such an unknown thing.

I grew out of it eventually.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:58 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

We go through this once a year during fire safety week or whatever. I have to show our daughter the fire extinguisher and talk through what to do if there is a fire. See if that level of explanation helps.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:23 PM on October 7, 2013

Go camping and toast some marshmallows.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:26 PM on October 7, 2013

She's in first grade in the same school she went to Kindergarten, so I know she's had fire drills and already discussed fire safety, although I imagine in somewhat more detail than last year.

Aha. This is probably it, as others have stated. We never had to watch any video, but we were required to draw maps of our houses and have our parents help us plot out escape plans in case of a fire. No scare tactics, totally practical. Except for how I then spent many nights lying awake in my loft bed and wondering: if there's a fire, will I have time to scramble up into my little sister's loft bed and get her, or will I have to leave her to die?
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:43 PM on October 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

My little sister had a very similar experience at that age. The main thing I remember my parents doing is buying a bunch of fire extinguishers, extra smoke alarms (to be placed EVERYWHERE), rope ladders for escape from upper floors, etc. and making a big production out of installing everything. Also walking though our fire plan in different ways (changing up who was home, what time of day). I think it helped her to understand that even though fire was scary, she had many many tools to combat it.
posted by coupdefoudre at 5:51 PM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Six is a funny age when it comes to fears. On the one hand it seems as if the kid is talking rationally: after all they're afraid of fires, not monsters. On the other hand, no rational explanation takes away the fear. She might be just too freaked out to hear any explanation. Therefore, when my kid and my friends' kids were six, we responded to that kind of fear with a kind of rational/magical mix.
On preview, I see that coupedfoudre actually says was I was getting to. Just make sure a fire extinguisher is always in sight. In a sense, you'll be using it in a rational way (you are not giving her a magic stone that makes fires go bye bye) but in a sense it will work just as a talisman -- look, this is what protects us. If there is a fire this will keep us safe.
posted by third rail at 5:54 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you talked about this when fire isn't present or imminent?
posted by Good Brain at 6:40 PM on October 7, 2013

When I was that age I had the exact same fear.

After assuring me that whatever it was was normal (or that my fears about fire hazards and "what if the house catches on fire?" and the like were unfounded), my parents would give me the option of leaving the room or otherwise not being around the scary fire. For example going into the house when the grill was lit/people were shooting off fireworks. If we were camping and everyone was toasting marshmallows, I was allowed to not participate. At Christmas when we lit the Advent Wreath, I was allowed to not light a candle if I didn't want to.

They didn't force me to participate, but they also didn't pay too much attention to the fear or cater to it in counter-productive ways.

Eventually after many years of working through my fears, I got to the point where I was willing to light a candle, cook on the stove, chill around the campfire, etc. Usually these progress milestones happened around something I really wanted to do that involved dealing with fire in some way (for instance when I was around 10 all my friends were altar servers at church, but the prime responsibility was lighting all the candles on the altar). By letting me sit out until my desire to do something became stronger than my fear, I was able to overcome it at my own pace without being coddled.
posted by Sara C. at 10:47 PM on October 7, 2013

In my house, we frame all of these types of issues around child development because my wife's an early childhood education consultant. I'm not, but I'm a enthusiastic observer because my daughter's just a bit younger than yours.

There's lots of good advice here about addressing the topical fear (particularly the visit to the fire station), so I have some advice about the roots of childhood anxiety:

1. What concrete steps can I take to help her with this specific fear?

Younger children have very little control over anything except themselves, so when they have specific fears that aren't related to experience, it's generally related to the big-picture realization that as a child, s/he has very little control over their environment. You can address this specific fear in the target ways that people have mentioned, but you can also address it by:

Encouraging her to be independent and demonstrate that she has influence over her world as well as it having influence on her. Specifically here you could show her patiently, step-by-step, how you prepare a grill, the safety precautions that you take in doing so, and explain how and why you have made that grill safe. Show her your smoke alarms, take one down and let her examine it. Explain the other ways that your family minimizes risk from fire, and add that the smoke alarms are only there because that's what responsible parents do, not because you think you'll need them.

2. Is there something bigger-picture that I may be missing?

Not missing, because you most likely know this, but it never hurts to be reminded:

It sounds like you have an observant, contemplative child, and that's a mixed blessing. It's good for many reasons, but she has to reconcile her knowledge that the world can be dangerous or even just unfeeling with her still-developing skills to deal with that. If she hasn't been burned, it's an excellent bet that she just needs an outlet to focus these anxieties on-- if it wasn't fire, it would be some other danger that she can't control-- strangers, big dogs, road accidents etc. Keep that in mind-- you're right to address fire specifically, because that's what's got her right now. But make it part of a larger "you have some control over your world" lesson so that she can feel less anxious.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:08 AM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I vaguely remember him taking apart the gas stove to show me that the fire didn't just live in there.

Thankfully he didn't explain the pilot light :)
posted by wrnealis at 6:49 AM on October 14, 2013

Response by poster: skyl1n3's answer appears to be pretty close. We can't nail down a triggering event: no fire safety video, no specific cartoon, etc. But Daughter is very precocious and could have seen any little snippet of PSA or what-have-you and connected the dots. What's been working: talking about fire safety and empowering her to police the immediate vicinity of the stove, discussing what can and can't burn, discussing the fire triangle and why the flame won't chase anyone down, and continuing to cook dinner every night. She still gets freaked out when she hears the ignitor clicking, but once things are cooking she's a lot calmer. I did get a few books for kids on how to deal with anxiety (the one she liked is "What To Do When You Worry Too Much", I believe), and I think they'll be good to read with her as she goes along. But yeah, it's just going to take time and patience.
posted by disconnect at 10:07 AM on December 10, 2013

One think I thought of just now: maybe start by having her snuff candles with a long handled snuffer?
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:12 PM on December 17, 2013

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