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The Informed Parent

When Children Steal: Part 1

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jan. 11, 1999

What a rush of feelings engulf you when you learn that your child took something that doesn’t belong to him. When a teacher, another parent or store manager uses the words STOLE or STEAL in telling you about your child’s actions, you probably feel both fear and embarrassment. You are not along. Children DO take things that don’t belong to them. When you know how to handle the situation, your confidence is not shaken by the unfortunate news.

Rarely do children reach adulthood without taking something that does not belong to them. Children under the age of three often pick up toys that entice them in others’ homes or the store. They may get home with these items unless parents are astute and observant. Children this young are not aware that their behavior is inappropriate. Children in the three-to-five-year-old range have the developmental maturity to know what does and does not belong to them. They may not, however, have developed the self-discipline to restrain themselves from taking something that belongs to another. Children older than five are aware of taking what does not belong to them. When they take something that is not theirs, they know they are doing something that society considers wrong.

This article addresses stealing that seems to be a normal part of the maturation process. Stealing of this nature includes items such as small toys, pencils, erasers, pens, candy and small change. If stealing occurs more than occasionally in young children , includes large items or continues into preadolescence, professional help should be sought. If you believe that stealing is done to support a drug habit, immediately seek professional help.

Regardless of the child’s age, when he takes something that is not his, he needs to be told that his behavior is inappropriate. He also must experience a consequence for the behavior and be given a plan of action for the future when he sees something he wants that is not his.

Understandably, parents feel strong dismay upon learning that their child has stolen something. They may think that this means their offspring is doomed for delinquency. They may punish the child for her actions and refer to the situation in future discussions about inappropriate behavior. Neither of these responses helps either you or the child. Let’s look at what makes a child steal and how to handle the situation responsibly and compassionately.

What Makes Children Steal

When children reach the age where they know that stealing is wrong, there is a reason that they do it. Some reasons for stealing are:

Children think taking something is the only way they can get what they want.

Stealing is a way of seeking attention.

Stealing is done for revenge or to hurt somebody.

Children steal because they think they can get away with it.

The child may not have learned to respect the rights of others.

Older children may steal because they like the risk.

Stealing may occur to support a drug habit.

What to do

Knowing why a child steals is important for appropriately addressing the underlying cause. Regardless of the underlying cause, when children steal you, as an informed parent, must consistently take certain steps.

When you know your child has taken something that does not belong to him or her, address the situation straightforwardly and compassionately. Speak about your concern and directly state what must be done. You might say, “I’m disappointed that you took the pen that didn’t belong to you. You will need to return it or replace it if you no longer have it. We can work on a plan together. In the future, if you need a pen talk to me and we’ll work something out.” This kind of message lets the child know that what he did was wrong. It teaches him that there is a consequence for the behavior. It teaches him what he can do in the future instead of stealing. It also shows your support by assisting him in developing a plan of action.

If the child declares that she has not taken something that you know she has, simply say, for example, “I know that you took the money, and you will need to return it or we’ll work out a way for you to pay it back.”

Do not ask whether a child has stolen something if you know she has. This evades the issue and sets the scene for power struggles.

Sometimes parents are not sure who has taken an item that doesn’t belong to him or her. When this occurs, have a family meeting. Say, for example, “Someone has taken some money from my purse. I don’t know who. You may put the money on my dresser in the next hour while I’m not in my room.” This gives a child a chance to save face. If the money appears, thank your children for being responsible. Then drop the issue. Whether the money appears or not, plan a time to talk about how it feels to have something taken from you. Ask how it might feel to take something. Ask what people could do besides stealing if they see something they want that’s not theirs. Explore with “what” and “how” question. “Why” questions are not useful.

A summary of pointers

Unless stealing is persistent, in which case professional guidance is needed, the following pointers will assist in dealing with the problem. When used with consistency, most stealing becomes short-lived.

Address the situation straightforwardly and without anger.

Assist the child in developing a plan for returning or replacing the stolen item.

Follow through on whatever plan you and your child decide.

Acknowledge that you know returning or replacing the stolen item is difficult and embarrassing.

Support the child but do not bail him or her out. The consequences of the actions must be experienced for responsible behavior to develop.

Once the situation is handled, drop it. Do not refer to it when discussing other behaviors or hold it over the child’s head as a warning.

Keep small change and enticing objects out of sight.

If necessary, use environmental control. Lock up your purse, wallet or enticing items.

Seek professional help when necessary.

Address the underlying cause.

Discovering that a child steals causes concern. Children who steal need guidance and need to experience consequences for their actions. Overreacting does not help the child and may inappropriately give him or her desired attention. By handling stealing in children straightforwardly, consistently, compassionately and with follow through, the problem will more than likely cease in a short time.

In part two we will address how to handle the underlying causes for stealing.

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