What to Do When Your Child is Stealing

Closeup of a frightened girl's blue eyes.

One of the more common problems that we as parents encounter, but that nobody likes to talk about, is what to do when your child steals. There are a number of different reasons a child steals and a number of different ways to handle the problem.

Young children do not steal. Children below the age of four or five do not have a concept of ownership. They do not understand that it is wrong to take things that belong to others.

By the time a child enters elementary school, he should know that stealing is wrong. Often children at this age take things because they lack self-control.

A preteen or teen may steal for the thrill of it or because that is what friends are doing. He may be trying to gain a feeling of control over his life or to fill an emotional void.

Whatever the reason a child is stealing, the parents need to approach the problem with wisdom. If the parents just react according to their natural inclination, their response will almost certainly be wrong and destructive.

Why a Child Steals

Child Can’t Control Himself: Younger children have difficulty with self-control. A child may take something although he knows that stealing is wrong simply because he can’t help himself. You have to give your child the ability to get what he wants in an honest way. Also, you must try to minimize the temptation.

Child’s Basic Needs are Not Being Met: Children are completely dependent on their parents for all of their needs. A child who feels that his needs are not being met will eventually take the matter into his own hands. The easiest way for a child to do this is to take what he needs.

What a person needs is subjective. Even though a parent may not feel that a child should have something, it might be a real need for the child. For example, if the child’s school friends have pocket money, then your child could have a need for pocket money. He will feel a lack if he doesn’t have it, even if you provide him with everything that he wants. This type of child may be tempted to steal money just so he has money like everybody else.

Child Needs More Attention: Probably the most common reason that children steal is that they feel an emotional lack in their lives. A child who does not have his emotional needs met, feels empty inside. He may take things in an attempt to fill the void. Often children who steal are lonely or having trouble in school or with friends. They lack the tools or the opportunity to express their feelings.

Many children do not get the attention they need. Such a child may feel unloved or that the parents are not interested in him. This may or may not be true. As I explain in How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior, how your child perceives your attention is more important than the amount of attention that you give. These children may translate their emotional needs into material desires. Stealing is their way for these children to express their discontent and to seek gratification.

Child Needs to Have Control Over His Life: Children are acutely aware of their vulnerability. They lack control over their lives. Some children have difficulty with this. If the child has trouble feeling dependent, he may steal to gain a sense of control or to rebel.

Peer Pressure: Older children are pulled after what their friends do. If the child is with a group of children that feel stealing is exciting, the child may steal to be part of the group. Sometimes, a child may steal to show bravery to friends. If your child has fallen into a group of bad friends there are some very concrete things you can do to address the problem. See the article What to Do When Your Teen Chooses Bad Friends.

What to Do When You Suspect Your Child is Stealing

Stay Calm: Don’t overreact. When a child steals it does not mean that he is a thief or is headed for a life of crime. It is really no different than any of mistake that your child makes.

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Anthony Kane, MD has been helping parents of ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder children online since 2003. Join over three thousand parents and get help for your Oppositional Defiant Disorder child, help with defiant out of control teens and ADHD treatment and ADHD information.

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