Stealing is a behavior that often disturbs parents, no matter what the child’s age. It is unsettling when your child takes things that do not belong to him without permission. But is stealing likely to lead to more serious problems of theft in children?
DO YOUNG CHILDREN UNDERSTAND THAT STEALING IS WRONG?Not necessarily. In fact, many young children take things without asking because developmentally, they lack the understanding of boundaries as to what is theirs and what belongs to others.1 Until the ages of three to five, taking something which grabs your child’s interest should not be considered stealing. With teaching, children usually can begin to understand that stealing is wrong around the age of kindergarten through first grade. At this point, they begin to realize that people actually own things and that taking things without permission is not appropriate.
WHY DO CHILDREN STEAL?
Children may steal for a number of reasons.1 It’s important to consider the many potential reasons in order to properly deal with the behavior. For example, if a child has not been taught by an adult that stealing is “bad,” addressing the stealing behavior will require a different approach than if the child was stealing to get an adult’s attention, or instead as a way to rebel against the adult.
- Sometimes children steal out of impulsivity, without thinking about the potential consequences of their actions.
- Sometimes stealing is simply a form of misbehavior designed to get an adult’s attention.3
- Unfortunately, sometimes children have observed stealing by others and are modeling that behavior.
- Some children have not learned from a caring adult that stealing is wrong.
- Children who are abused and neglected may steal because the stolen object gives them a sense of comfort.
- Other children steal “for kicks.”
- Some children steal in order to fit in with a peer group that values the behavior (peer pressure.)
- Some children steal as a way of rebelling against authority.
- Some children steal for the feeling of independence it gives them.
HOW CAN PARENTS ADDRESS STEALING?
Parents can address stealing by teaching their child what stealing is and that it is wrong.
When the behavior occurs, if possible, parents should have the child return the stolen item and apologize for taking it. Having the child make amends in some way to the person she stole from helps her understand that stealing has consequences. Not only can having your child make amends help him recognize his stealing as wrong, but is an opportunity to teach him about empathy.
Parents should again explain that stealing is wrong and is not appropriate behavior. You may, at the time, be tempted to pass over the stealing, especially if there is an “understandable” reason, such as a child who is envious of a brother or sister who did get more of something. Yet, keep in mind that you are not only training your child not to steal but helping your child to learn that stealing is wrong will also help him develop a sense of trust in others.
In most cases, when children are caught stealing, direct intervention should correct the problem. It may be necessary to remind young children several times that taking things from others is wrong and that it is hurtful to others.
Additionally, parents and teachers should model honest behavior themselves so that children have received positive role models at home and school.
CALMNESS, FIRMNESS, AND ACKNOWLEDGING GOOD BEHAVIOR
It is important to be calm when talking with children about stealing. Calmness and firmness are always recommended over yelling or severe consequences with young children.
Acknowledge honest behavior in your children and compliment them on their good decisions.
When Stealing Continues
In rare instances, a child may continue to steal despite the correction. In those cases, it may be necessary for parents to begin increasing consequences for stealing. For example, have the child return the item and possibly lose a privilege for a period of time. If the behavior continues, the consequences become increasingly significant such as grounding or taking away forms of entertainment. Children can also be required to perform extra chores as a consequence. You may think of other logical consequences that may work best for your particular child.
If the problem continues, it may be necessary to seek professional assistance. Your child’s school counselor or school psychologist can usually assist with counseling and develop intervention strategies.
TRY TO UNDERSTAND WHY YOUR CHILD IS STEALING
Talking with your child can help provide insight as to why he is stealing. Asking open-ended questions can encourage your child to talk. Remain calm. While it is okay to show that you are not pleased with the behavior, avoid shaming the child because you want him to share information openly. Say, “Tell me the reason you stole the money. What did you plan to do with the money?” Conversations such as this can help your child open up and reveal the difficulties in his life. When you know why the child stole the item, you will be more likely to be able to help him choose honest ways of solving his problems rather than resorting to stealing. Try to use the stealing episode as a teachable moment.
KIDS STEALING FROM PARENTS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Has your child been caught stealing from you or someone else? Have you found them using your credit card for online gaming, taking money from your wallet without asking, or even taking big-ticket items from your house?
Stealing is not about you and your parenting—it’s about your child and the inappropriate ways they’re choosing to solve their problems at the moment.
If your child has been caught stealing, you might have wondered, “Why would my child do this after everything we’ve taught them?” Many parents question their own abilities and wonder where they’ve gone wrong with their child when theft is involved.
And while it’s disappointing and frustrating for parents when their child steals, I firmly believe that in most cases, it’s a behavior that can be changed.
YOUNGER KIDS: TAKE IT EASY
There is a big difference between children under the age of 6 taking something compared to older kids who steal. Really young kids don’t have a sense of right and wrong about this issue yet. Their brains haven’t developed enough to think outside of themselves and about others.
If your younger child has been taking things, focus on teaching them the skills of sharing. Teach them to ask for what they would like to have. And teach them to take turns.
When your child gets to be a little older, you need to coach them to say, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken that without asking.” But you don’t want to make them feel like they’re a bad person. And don’t label it as stealing. Instead, make it clear that taking something without asking is wrong.
OLDER KIDS: MAKE SURE CRIME DOESN’T PAY
If your child is nine or older and they’re taking things from you or others, you should treat the problem more seriously “Understand that your child is using faulty thinking as a way to solve their problem.”
The “problem” might be that your ten–year–old wants a new video game but doesn’t have any money. They “solve” it by taking money from your wallet without asking. They’re probably thinking, “I need this money. Mom’s not even going to notice.”
When you catch your child using this faulty thinking, you can say:
“Just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s okay to take it without asking.”
And then ask:
“What should you do next time?”
It’s important that you don’t allow your child to keep what they took. They should never benefit in any way from taking something from someone else. You don’t ever want stealing to pay off.
Many parents are worried their child will be prosecuted if they take the shoplifted item back to the store where they got it. They decide to give the child a consequence, such as no T.V., but they allow the child to keep the stolen item.
It’s best to require your child to take the item back to the store. I understand this can be a complicated decision, depending on the age of your child and where you live. This has to be a choice you make after weighing all possible outcomes.
If you decide against having your child take it back, make sure they don’t get off scot-free. Give them consequences at home—and do not let them keep the item. You ultimately want your child to learn that when you harm someone, even if it’s the owner of a store, you should make amends directly to that person. That is why the best lesson is for your child to take the item back.
WHEN YOUR CHILD USES YOUR CREDIT CARD
Often, they’ve used it for gaming. Even if the money is gone and cannot be retrieved, don’t let your child off the hook. They can make amends by doing something extra around the house to work it off. For example, they can clean out the basement, the garage, or do yard work.
The bottom line is that you want to try to teach your child to make amends to the person they’ve wronged. In this case, that person is you. I also recommend that you log on to your credit card account frequently—daily if necessary—to monitor your card’s activity.
WHEN YOUR CHILD TAKES BIG-TICKET ITEMS: ARE DRUGS INVOLVED?
If your child is taking large amounts of money or big-ticket items from your home, I think you need to question why. If you think drugs might be involved, there are probably other signs that are telling you that your child has a problem, like changes in mood or personality. You should definitely look into the possibility that they’re taking drugs and rule it out.
If you know your child has a problem, but you haven’t been able to get them off drugs or into treatment, then consider reporting their thefts to the police to get them into the justice system. If you suspect drugs, reporting repetitive theft to the police can be a good course of action.
Here’s the truth: a child who is never made to be accountable will never learn from their mistakes. In your own home, have your kids make amends as directly to you or the injured party. This drives home the meaning of what they’ve actually done. It lets them know that their actions have caused harm to someone.
WHEN STEALING CONTINUES
If your child can’t stop stealing, you need to help level the playing field for them by finding out what’s causing this to happen over and over. You also might want to secure items in your home and keep your wallet in a safe place at all times until your child can learn how to solve their problems more appropriately.
I want to stress that even if you’re worried about your child’s character, don’t let them think that you feel they’re a bad, horrible person. Rather, you need to convey the opposite. They need to make amends and do the right thing because that is what good people do. You want to say things like:
“I know it’s hard, but I believe you can do it.”
When you change your opinion of your child as a person and start thinking that they’re “bad” or that there’s something wrong with their character, there is great potential to harm the relationship. Your child will sense that you have a poor opinion of them and could start to lose hope in their ability to ever change.
If your child continues to take things from you, you will need to firmly address their faulty thinking. There may be an emotional need or impulsivity that drives their behavior.
Not all adopted kids steal, of course, but sometimes kids with traumatic backgrounds may have trouble trusting other people to meet their needs, so they take food and other items and hoard them.
WHEN YOUR CHILD DENIES THE THEFT
I often tell parents that if you know for sure that your child has stolen something, act with that knowledge. Just say:
“I think that you used my credit card because you wanted to download some songs from iTunes. And I’m going to ask you to make amends for that.”
If you don’t know for certain and your child denies the theft, then I don’t think you can give them a consequence. You don’t want to accuse your child of something that they haven’t done because it can end up really backfiring on you. They may act out just because you believe they’re capable of it. Basically, unless you catch your child red-handed, I wouldn’t punish them.
I understand that parents feel hurt and betrayed after their child has stolen something. But try not to take the fact that they stole personally. Stealing is not about you and your parenting. Rather, it’s about your child and the inappropriate ways they’re choosing to solve their problems at the moment