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The Informed Parent

When Children Steal: Part 2

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Feb. 08, 1999
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In part one we talked about how to effectively handle the situation when your child steals. We covered the following points:

1. Address the situation straightforwardly and compassionately.

2. Let your child know that you are concerned and that his behavior is inappropriate.

3. Work out a plan with the child for returning or replacing the stolen object.

4. Support your child in the solution but do not rescue him by taking care of the problem for him.

5. Allow the child to experience the consequences for himself.

6. Seek professional help when necessary.

We indicated that causes underlie the stealing once a child has reached the age where she knows that taking someone else’s things is wrong. This usually occurs between the ages of three and five. In this article, we will discuss ways to handle the underlying causes of stealing.

Why Children Steal

Regardless of why children steal, the stealing itself must be handled by following the steps enumerated above. Knowing what lies behind the stealing helps you recognize patterns that may be occurring in other parts of your child’s life. It also assists you in understanding needs that aren’t being met in his life that you can teach him to meet in socially appropriate and effective ways. These are the primary reasons children and adolescents steal:

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

It is a way of seeking attention.

It is done for revenge or to hurt somebody.

They think they can get away with it.

They may not have learned to respect the rights of others.

Older children may like the risk.

It may support a drug habit.

What to do

When children take items like money, toys, pens, pencils and erasers, they think that is the only way to easily get these items. Brainstorming ideas with your child about how to appropriately get what he wants lets him know you want him to meet his needs successfully. If he receives an allowance, offer suggestions about how he might earn extra money to buy the school supplies or toys he wants. Assist him in planning a savings budget for wanted items. Model for him how to ask for the extra money he desires. For example, you might say, “It is not okay for you to take money from my purse. (your sister’s room, etc.). If you want or need money, come to me and say, ‘I need extra money for pencils’, or ‘I want money for candy.’ Sometimes we might work out a loan. Sometimes I will say that I can’t give you the money. When that happens, we’ll see if we can create a plan together.”

If stealing is done to seek attention, the child usually does it in such a way that he is easily caught. Handle the stealing straightforwardly but give no extra attention to it. Do not discuss it past the time of returning or replacing the taken item. Look for positive behaviors the child exhibits and begin acknowledging them regularly. When children feel acknowledged for appropriate behavior, they seek less negative attention.

Sometimes children steal to hurt their victim or to get revenge. This can be a way siblings inappropriately handle hurt feelings with each other. Their motive is, “I’m going to make you feel as bad as you make me feel.” If your child wants to hurt you because she feels picked on or misunderstood, she may take money from your purse or wallet. She may take something from your dresser drawer. What better way to arouse your hurt and concern?

Your own injured feelings can be a sign that this was your child’s motive for stealing. Address your own feelings with her; then explore her hurt. You might say something like, “I feel sad and scared when you take money from me. I know you were angry this morning when I yelled at you for missing the bus. I said some unkind things. Taking my money won’t solve our problem. I’m sorry I was mean. I know you weren’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school.” Let her know that she can tell you she is angry. She doesn’t need to take your money. If you are wrong about the motive, your child will let you know in such a way that you can continue exploring through positive communication. Only attempt this kind of communication when you have time to complete the process.

Children may steal because they think they can get away with it. This is particularly true when parents are inconsistent in following through with consequences for not complying with household standards or when deviant behavior has been inconsistently addressed in the past. When we are inconsistent in our effective parenting, children know that they have a strong chance of getting away with inappropriate behavior. In assisting our children toward appropriate behavior, we must be willing to take the necessary time and energy for following through on set consequences for family standards.

The best way we can assist a child in learning to respect the rights of others is to model that respect ourselves. If we take sugar packets from restaurants, don’t tell a cashier if we have received too much change or are dishonest in business transactions, we are letting our children know this behavior is acceptable. If we take items from our children’s rooms or backpacks without asking, we are not respecting their rights. Be a good model. Teach the respect you want your child to give to you and others through your own respect for the rights and property of others.

When older children and adolescents who do not have a criminal history engage in stealing, it may be to experience the high risk factor at play. Like younger children, the motive is to see if they can get away without being caught. The stakes are high. Shoplifting or taking hubcaps or hood ornaments from cars are common choices. The sooner the adolescent needs to face the consequences of such behavior, the less likely he is to continue in it.

It is important to remember that straightforward and compassionate handling of the problem is called for. Verbally attacking the adolescent will not solve the problem, nor will consequences unrelated to the incident. If the police are involved, the consequences may not be in your hands. You may want to seek professional help if your older child or adolescent steals.

Children and adolescents who are involved with drugs steal to support the drug habit. If you have any reason to believe that this is the motive for stealing, seek professional help immediately. As parents, we don’t want to believe our children use illegal drugs. Closing our eyes to the possibility is not the answer. Neither is demanding answers from our offspring or indiscriminately punishing them. Children and teens who use drugs are hurting. They need guidance beyond what most parents are able to provide. Professional intervention offers the best opportunity for positive outcomes.

A short article just begins to address the ramifications of stealing in children. The above suggestions will assist you onto a positive path in dealing with this sensitive issue. For further information, look under stealing in the indexes of parenting guides in your local bookstore. You may also find information by going to “stealing in children” or “children who steal” on the internet.




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