Why Kids Steal.

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Is stealing a cry for help?
Is stealing a cry for help?


I’ve been working with a lovely 14 year old girl and her parents as she has begun to steal small items from shops in her town.

Naturally her concerned parents are very worried about why, and what they can do to help her, and how to stop her.

Most issues around stealing, or taking something without asking, are problems of maturity rather than morality and can be resolved quite easily.

 Kids of all ages — from toddlers to teens — can be tempted to steal for different reasons:

  1. Very young children sometimes take things they want without fully understanding that things cost money and that it’s wrong to take something without paying for it.
  2. School-age children usually know they’re not supposed to take something without paying, but they might do so anyway because they lack enough self-control.

  3. Preteens and teens know they’re not supposed to steal, but might steal for the thrill of it or because their friends do. Some enjoy the rush of believing they can get away with it. Some teenagers steal as a way of rebelling, and some steal to feel a sense of control over their lives that is missing.

    And there are more complex reasons why a child may steal, perhaps due to their anger, or their sense of helplessness during their parent’s divorce, or because they want, crave, or need attention. Their behaviour may reflect stress at home, at school, or with friends. Some may steal as a cry for help because of emotional or physical abuse they’re suffering.

    In other cases, children may steal because they can’t afford to pay for what they want – e.g. they may steal to get popular brand-name things and to be the same as their peers. In some cases, they may take things or money to support their drug habit.

    Whatever the reason for stealing, you need to get to the root of the behaviour and address the underlying problem.

    Putting your head in the sand won’t help.

    What Should I Do?

    When a child has been caught stealing, a parent’s reaction should depend on whether it’s the first time or whether there’s a pattern to the stealing.

    With very young children, you need to help them understand that stealing is wrong — that when you take something without asking or paying for it, it’s not right, or fair or not acceptable. If a toddler takes sweets at the supermarket check -out for example, you can help your child return them. If your child has already eaten the sweets or the chocolate, it’s a good idea to take your child back to the shop to apologise and pay for it. It teaches them responsibility and that you won’t tolerate such behaviour.

    With school-age kids, too, it’s important to return the stolen item. By Year 1 and Year 2 children should know that stealing is wrong. But they may need a better understanding of the consequences. So talk and teach your child about how it would feel if a friend took something without asking first. Talk to them about how they’d feel if their brother or sister took something from them.

    Talk and teach your younger child your core value that stealing is wrong.

    But when teenagers steal, I recommend that you follow through with stricter consequences.

    For example, when a teenager is caught stealing, you can take your teen back to the shop and meet the shop owner to explain and apologise for what happened. The embarrassment of facing up to what he or she did by having to return a stolen item makes for an everlasting lesson on why stealing is wrong.

    If it’s a first-time offense, some stores and businesses may accept an apology and not necessarily press charges. However, some stores press charges the first time around. And there’s often little sympathy for repeat offenders.

    Kids of all ages need to know that shoplifting isn’t just about taking things from a shop — it’s also about taking money from the people who run the businesses. Plus, shoplifting makes prices higher for other customers. They should also know that stealing is a crime and can lead to consequences far worse than being grounded, including juvenile detention centres and even prison.

    If your teenager has stolen money from you, offer the option of paying back the money, by doing extra chores around the house. Perhaps it’s time to introduce pocket money or a regular allowance for your teen to spend on the things they want free from your judgement.

    But the key thing to reiterate is that once trust is lost it is VERY hard to earn it back. But don’t continually keep bringing it up – once the lesson has gone in properly move on.

    If a Child Keeps Stealing

    If your child has stolen more than once, consider getting professional help. Repeat offenses may indicate a bigger problem.

    One third of teenagers who’ve been caught shoplifting say it’s difficult for them to quit. So it’s important to help kids and teens understand why stealing is wrong and that they may face serious consequences if they continue to steal.

    Most ordinary acts of theft or shoplifting are deliberate, but some people who steal may have kleptomania. With this rare compulsive disorder (which makes up a very small portion of all shoplifting cases) a person feels a sense of tension or anxiety before the theft, then feels relief or gratification when committing the theft. The person may feel guilt afterward and even discard the stolen objects, and might have other compulsive disorders (such as an eating disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD).

    Whatever the underlying cause, if stealing is becoming a habit with your child or teenager, consider speaking with a doctor or therapist to get to the cause of the behaviour. It’s also important to routinely monitor your child’s behaviour, keep them away from situations in which stealing is a temptation, and establish reasonable consequences for stealing if it does happen.

    If your child is behaving like a magpie, collecting in a bottom drawer money that they never try to use, or they steal other people’s possessions that they don’t even really want, they are in emotional trouble.

    They may be trying to take, symbolically, something that they don’t feel they are being given. It is probably love or approval that they feel short of. Instead of being furious and upset and making them feel disgraced, try and be an ‘Emotional Detective’ and to get to the bottom of what they feel they are lacking and then try to offer them what they really need.

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