Thursday, July 21, 2005

What to Do When Your Child is Stealing

One of the more common problems that we as parents encounter (but that nobody likes to talk about) is what to do when your child steals. There are a number of different reasons children steal and a number of different ways to handle the problem.

Young children do not steal. Children below the age of 4 or 5 do not have a concept of ownership. They do not understand that it is wrong to take things that belong to others. By the time a child enters elementary school, he should know that stealing is wrong. Often, children at this age take things because they lack self-control. A preteen or teen may steal for the thrill of it or because that is what friends are doing. He may be trying to gain a feeling of control over his life or to fill an emotional void.

Whatever the reason a child is stealing, parents need to approach the problem with wisdom. If parents just react according to their natural inclination, their response will almost certainly be wrong and destructive. Why children steal

There are five common reasons that children steal.

They can’t control themselves.
Younger children have difficulty with self-control. A child may take something although he knows that stealing is wrong simply because he can't help himself. You have to give your child the ability to get what he wants in an honest way. Also, you must try to minimize the temptation.

Their basic needs are not being met.
Children are completely dependent on their parents for all of their needs. A child who feels that his needs are not being met will eventually take the matter into his own hands. The easiest way for a child to do this is to take what he needs.

What a person needs is subjective. Even though a parent may not feel that a child should have something, it might be a real need for the child. For example, if your child's school friends have pocket money, then your child could have a need for pocket money. He will feel a lack if he doesn't have it, even if you provide him with everything that he wants. This type of child may be tempted to steal money just so he has money like everybody else.

They need more attention.
Probably the most common reason that children steal is that they feel an emotional lack in their lives. A child who does not have his emotional needs met feels empty inside. He may take things in an attempt to fill the void. Often children who steal are lonely or having trouble in school or with friends. They lack the tools or the opportunity to express their feelings.

Many children do not get the attention they need. Such children may feel unloved or that their parents are not interested in them. This may or may not be true. As I explain in How to Improve Your Child's Behavior, how your child perceives your attention is more important than the amount of attention that you give. These children may translate their emotional needs into material desires. Stealing is a way for these children to express their discontent and to seek gratification.

Children need more control over their lives.
Children are acutely aware of their vulnerability. They lack control over their lives. Some children have difficulty with this. If a child has trouble feeling dependant, he may steal to gain a sense of control or to rebel.They may feel peer pressure. Older children are pulled after what their friends do. If the child is with a group of children that feels stealing is exciting, the child may steal to be part of the group. Sometimes, a child may steal to show bravery to friends.

If your child has fallen into a group of bad friends there are some very concrete things you can do to address the problem. See What to Do When Your Teen Chooses Bad Friends.

If you suspect your child is stealing

There are several tactics you should follow if you suspect your child is stealing.

Stay calm.
Don't overreact. When a child steals, it does not mean that he is a thief or is headed for a life of crime. It is really no different than any of mistake that your child makes.

Do not take it personally.
Children steal to get attention. If your child is stealing from you and you take it as a personal attack, you are reinforcing the reason the child stole.

Do not accuse or confront your child.
This point must be stressed. You must catch your child in the act so that the situation speaks for itself.

You can never challenge your child with circumstantial evidence. Either the child will lie and you will reinforce his dishonesty, or he will confess. If he tells the truth and you punish him, you will be teaching him that it pays to lie. Either way, you are stuck. Circumstantial evidence won't do.

Hearing that your child stole from a third party won't do. If your child denies it, then you are forced to believe your child. If you don't, then you will show your child that you don't trust him. Nothing encourages a child to be dishonest more that knowing that his parents don't trust him. If your child confesses, you will not be able to punish him.

Even if you are 99 percent sure your child is stealing, that is not good enough to accuse him. For example, say that you look in your purse and the brand, new $50 bill you took out from the bank yesterday is missing. You put your child's laundry away and you find hidden among his things your brand, new $50. You did not catch your child.

Maybe someone else also lost a new $50 bill and he found it. Maybe your $50 fell out of your purse and your child found it on the street. Unless you see your child reach into your purse and take out the $50, you did not see him steal.

Make sure that your child knows what he did is wrong.
This is particularly true of a younger child.

When you catch your child
When you catch your child stealing, take action. Don't ask the child for explanations. Merely state that he is not allowed to take things from other people. Do not sermonize. Just use simple explanations: "Stealing is wrong. You would not want anyone to take your toy. So it's wrong for you to take this toy."

Never imply that your child is bad.
Stealing is bad, not the child. Do not call your child a thief, dishonest, a liar or any other name that you do not want him to become. When you give your child a label, he will grow to fill that label.

Correct the wrong.
If your child stole from someone outside the family, your child must make restitution. If your child stole from a store or from a neighbor, then see that he returns the object. Have your child apologize and say he or she will never do it again. You should accompany your child to make it easier for him to correct the damage.

If your child stole money from you.
Estimate what child took and make it clear that she must pay you back. She may do this by helping around the house for money. You should pay her enough that she pays off her debt in about a month. Say to her that you realize she needs more money and give her an allowance or increase in allowance.

Hide temptation.
Don't leave money around where the child can find it. Tell his siblings that you are going to watch their money for a while. Don't tell them why. Don't send this child to the store to buy something with a large bill where there will be a lot of change.

Put the incident into the past
Once you’ve taken care of immediate needs, put the incident into the past.

Figure out why your child stole.
If he needs more attention, make a special effort to give it to him. If he needs to feel more control over his life, give him an increase in allowance and more freedom to spend it as he wishes. If he needs certain things to be part of his peer group, make sure that he gets them.

Continue to trust your child.
If your child is stealing, it does not mean he is bad or he is a thief. You don't want your reaction to make him become that way. Your child will fulfill your expectations of him. If you view him as a thief, bad or dishonest, he will grow into that label.

Be a model of honesty.
Children learn by watching their parents. You should show concern about the property rights of others. A parent who brings office supplies home or boasts about a mistake at the supermarket checkout counter teaches his child that honesty is not important.

Stealing is a common problem.
You should view it like any other mistake your child makes. It is something that has to be corrected, but it is not more than that. If you handle it properly, you can correct this problem quickly and easily.

© Anthony Kane

Anthony Kane, M.D., is a physician and international lecturer. Get ADD ADHD Child Behavior and Treatment Help for your ADHD child, including child behavior advice, information on the latest ADHD treatment and help with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Share your views at the ADD ADHD Blog Sign up for the free ADD ADHD Advances online journal. Send an e-mail to