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What to Do When Your Child is Stealing

What to Do When Your Child is Stealing

By Anthony Kane, MD

Introduction: My Child, the Thief

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 a child steals and a number of different ways to
handle the problem.

Young children do not steal. Children below the age of
four or five 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, the parents need to
approach the problem with wisdom. If the parents just react
according to their natural inclination, their response will almost
certainly be wrong and destructive.

Why a Child Steals

1-Child Can't Control Himself

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.

2-Child's 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 the 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.

3-Child Needs 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 a child
may feel unloved or that the parents are not interested in him.
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 their way for these children
to express their discontent and to seek gratification.

4-Child Needs to Have Control Over His Life

Children are acutely aware of their vulnerability. They lack
control over their lives. Some children have difficulty with this.
If the child has trouble feeling dependant, he may steal to gain
a sense of control or to rebel.

5-Peer Pressure

Older children are pulled after what their friends do. If
the child is with a group of children that feel 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 the article
What to Do When Your Teen
Chooses Bad Friends

What to Do When You Suspect Your Child is Stealing

1-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.

2-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.

3-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 the child confesses, you will
not be able to punish him.

Even if you are 99% 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 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.

4-Make Sure that Your Child Knows What He Did is Wrong

This is particularly true of a younger child.

What to Do When You Catch Your Child

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, or 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.

Correcting 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 the child must
pay you back. He may do this by helping around the house for
money. You should pay him enough that he pays off his debt in
about a month. Say to him that you realize he needs more money
and give him 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.

Putting the Incident into the Past

Figure Out Why Your Child Stole

If he needs more attention make a special effort to give it too 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.

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