Your child does homework on time, helps you clear the table after dinner, and even helps with housework on the weekends. So can it be true that this same child is stealing?
Before you react, it helps to know a little about why kids steal and where to get help.
Why Kids and Teens Steal
Kids of all ages — from preschoolers to teens — can be tempted to steal for different reasons:
- Very young children sometimes take things they want without understanding that things cost money and that it's wrong to take something without paying for it.
- School-age kids usually know they're not supposed to take something without paying, but they might do so anyway because they lack enough self-control.
- Preteens and teens know they're not supposed to steal, but might steal for the thrill of it or because their friends do. Some might believe they can get away with it. As they're given more control over their lives, some teens steal as a way of rebelling.
And other complex reasons can be factors. Kids might be angry or want attention. Their behavior may reflect stress at home, school, or with friends. Some may steal as a cry for help because of emotional or physical abuse they're enduring.
In other cases, kids and teens steal because they can't afford to pay for what they need or want — for example, they may steal to get popular name-brand items. In some cases, they may take things to support drug habits.
Whatever the reason for stealing, parents need to get to the root of the behavior and address other underlying problems, like drug abuse, that may surface.
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 there's a pattern of stealing.
With very young children, parents need to help them understand that stealing is wrong — that when you take something without asking or paying for it, it hurts someone else. If a preschooler takes a piece of candy, for instance, parents can help the child return the item. If the child has already eaten the candy, parents can take the child back to the store to apologize and pay for it.
With school-age kids, too, it's important to return the stolen item. By the first and second grades, kids should know stealing is wrong. But they may need a better understanding of the consequences.
Here's an example: If a child comes home with a friend's bracelet and it's clear the child took it without the friend's permission, the parent should talk to the child about how it would feel if a friend took something without asking first. The parent should encourage the child to call the friend to apologize, explain what happened, and promise to return it. If your child has no remorse and doesn’t see why it's wrong to steal, seek help from a mental health professional right away.
When teens steal, it's recommended that parents follow through with stricter consequences. For example, when a teen is caught stealing, the parent can take the teen back to the store and meet with the security department to explain and apologize 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.
Further punishment, particularly physical punishment, is not necessary and could make a child or teen angry and more likely to engage in even worse behavior.
Kids of all ages need to know that shoplifting isn't just about taking things from a store — it's 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 centers and even prison.
If stealing money from a parent, the child should be offered options for paying back the money, like doing extra chores around the house. It's important, however, that a parent not bait the child by leaving out money in the hopes of catching the child in the act. That could damage the sense of trust between parents and kids.
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 juveniles 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.
Others who may be able to talk to you and/or your child about the problem and help you address it include a:
- family therapist or counselor
- family doctor (who may be able to refer you to a family therapist or counselor)
- minister, priest, or rabbi
- school counselor (especially if your child is stealing from the school)
- support group, such as the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) or Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA) (search online for groups in your area)
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 teen, consider speaking with a doctor or therapist to get to the cause of the behavior. It's also important to routinely monitor your child's behavior, keep him or her away from situations in which stealing is a temptation, and establish reasonable consequences for stealing if it does happen.
Reviewed by: W. Douglas Tynan, PhD, ABPP
Date reviewed: January 2015