What should a parent do if their child steals?
Over the years I have found that children steal for four major reasons. Three reasons will be discussed here, while the fourth will be covered under its broader category.
(I will cover number 4 in a later article concerning drugs and the family)
My son is nine years old. He has been caught stealing three times in the last month. My husband and I suspect that he has also stolen money from our bedroom as well as from his older sister’s purse. We have spanked him and grounded him, but he does not seem to care.
The vast majority of children (under age fourteen) steal for the most basic of needs. They want something—so they take it. It is not unusual that there is no more thought than just that. I want it, so I take it.
If you ask around (I have) everyone seems to have the “I got caught stealing and my mother did ...” story. The most common story is,
I got caught and I had to go and confess. I was so embarrassed. I could feel my heart pounding. But my mom was so mad at me. She marched me right back to the store and made me confess to the store manager. I never stole anything again.
For most children, being marched back to the store to talk to the manager is a wonderful life lesson. I definitely advocate doing just that, but it is no longer 1940 America so we need to call the store and make sure that the manager is willing to play his part well (most are). I have had parents tell horror stories of managers that flipped out on them and chased them out of the store. And then there was the story of the manager who tried to befriend the child who was crying by saying, “It’s OK little girl. It’s only a candy bar so don’t worry about it.” It is best to call the manager and ask them to take a few minutes to explain how when people steal from his store it hurts him personally and also raises the cost for everyone who shops at the store.
Most parents over react to their child stealing by being punitive and forgetting to teach. Many children steal because it is their only way to get what they want and they do not see anything wrong with getting their needs met. If a parent becomes extremely embarrassed they tend toward character attacks and spanking. Some parents exaggerate the situation and call their child thief or tell them that they are going to go to jail. It is important that parents use this problem as a teaching tool. It is important that parents discuss the following with their child:
It is important for parents to focus on the process of fixing the problem. It is important that children make restitution whenever possible. Children need to be responsible for their behaviors.
It has gotten so bad that I have had to put a lock on my bedroom door. My daughter is a little thief. If it isn’t bolted down she will steal it. I hate living like this, but we have to. I had to put a chain with a lock on the refrigerator.
Often stealing within the family is a form of acting out in a-round-about-way to teach someone a lesson. It is important to figure out what the underlying problems are. Often this is easy, such as when little brother keeps stealing big brother’s Legos. When you ask him “Why?” he shouts back, “You like Bobby better, he gets all the cool stuff!” If it is this straight forward then you want to help little brother deal with his real feelings. Little brother needs to learn how to get his needs met, while respecting other people’s property.
Sometimes it is not clear exactly what your child is trying to say. It will take time and effort to sort out what the child is trying to teach. But, this is very important, not only for the present situation, but also for the child in the long run. Your child needs to know that his feelings are appropriate, but his behavior (stealing) is not.
I worked with a forty-five year old man who had lived for forty years getting back at people who he thought had wronged him. He told story after story of making things right, in his mind, by getting people back. He had slashed tires, peed on potted plants, and spat on others’ food. The interesting thing was that he hated himself for it. He sought therapy because he wanted to learn how to tell people his feelings. When I asked him about his earliest memory of righting wrongs his way he said,
When I was five, I stole my brother’s pocket knife. I got a beating and sent to bed without dinner. I remember, as if it was yesterday, that I stayed up for hours planning my revenge. To this day, I can’t talk with my brother without hating him.
This man learned to take revenge instead of learning how to communicate his feelings and get his emotional needs met in an appropriate manner.
Behaviors are learned. The secondary gain (thrill) of stealing is very rewarding. I have worked with many teenagers, as well as adults, who steal simply for the excitement. It usually starts with small stuff then becomes very large.
This learned behavior is very hard to unlearn. Most teens and adults need to experience a severe punisher to change their behavior. Because of this it is important that parents do not overly protect their children when they get caught. If your child learns that you will protect him from the police, the stealing will most probably increase after the initial fear of being caught subsides. For most teens this takes about two weeks.
If your child is coming home with items that are not theirs, you must deal with it. I worked with a parent who was surprised when the police searched her home. They found thousands of dollars of stolen property in the form of a stereo, TV, VCR, leather jacket, and jewelry. When I asked the mom where she thought the stuff came from, she said, “He said his friends gave it to him.” It is very hard for teens to make money, even when employed, so it is important that parents stay aware of their child’s property.
I advocate that in most cases stealing within the house is a family problem and stealing outside of the house is a community problem. To this extent, I advise parents to deal with small crimes within the house. I advise parents to make their children accountable to the community outside of the home. This can take the form of taking your child back to the store (young child) to calling the police and reporting a crime (teenager).
Parents often ask me if they should turn their own teen in for, let’s say, stealing a car. And I emphatically say, “Yes!” It is very simple. I want your child to know, for a fact, that there are powers much greater than their parents. And I want your child to learn this fact well before they are adults, at which point society is not very forgiving.
In closing, if a parent covers up a crime for a child, the child learns that they are not responsible and their parent will cover for them. In my experience this leads to larger crimes and much greater danger. One young adult told me:
When I was strip searched on my sixteenth birthday— after getting arrested for drunk driving and joy riding ... I knew that I had to change. In jail I was treated like a nonperson. I was only there three hours, but I grew up ten years.
(The young man is now a third year college student studying Business Finance. His parents had called the police when he arrived home intoxicated in an unknown car.)
Family with three teens with minor run-ins with the law:
Must Rule: No Stealing!
Consequence: Inside the house: One week grounding. Outside the house: Explain your behavior to the police.
Family with seven and eight year old girls:
Must Rule: You must have specific permission to use another’s property before you touch it.
Consequence: Fifteen minutes of sitting on your bed.
Family of fifteen year old with a history of stealing from neighborhood homes:
Must Rule: Terrance is not allowed to steal. Terrance is not allowed to borrow anything from anyone outside of the family. Terrance can borrow from mom and dad only with prior permission.
Consequence: Room restriction for one week; report to probation officer for review. Possible probation violation and legal charges if deemed necessary by probation department.
****Excerpted from my book: Basic Parenting101: The manual your child should have been born with
Please note, if this dangerous behavior continues or worsens, please seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.