Why Your Child Steals

Closeup of a scared little boy looking toward the camera.

If your child is stealing, then you are probably extremely worried about it. You also may be wondering what exactly is the best way to handle the problem. In this article we will discuss the reasons why children steal and what you should do to help your child with this problem.

Preschool children do not steal. Until a child reaches the age of four or five he does not have a well-developed concept of ownership. As a result, he cannot understand that taking things that don’t belong to him is wrong. A preschooler is too young to understand the concept of stealing.

Elementary school children do understand the concept of possession. A child in elementary school steals because he sees something that he wants and he lacks the self- control to hold himself back. A child this age knows that stealing is wrong. Since the child knows what he did was inappropriate this is the age where you can begin to give discipline for stealing.

Preteens or teens steal for the thrill of it. They are also highly influenced by peer pressure and they fall into a crowd that steals for fun, they will steal too. Preteens or teens may steal to fill an emotional void, or to gain a sense of control.

Whatever the age of your child and whatever the reason your child is stealing, you as the parent must act with wisdom to respond to this issue. If you just respond according to your natural inclination, you will almost certainly do the wrong thing and your response might even exacerbate the problem and be destructive for your child.

Five Reasons Why a Child Steals

We are now going to discuss the five most common reasons children steal and how you should respond.

1- Your Child Lacks Self-Control

This is primarily a problem for younger children as we have stated previously. An elementary school child knows that stealing is wrong, but sometimes he sees something that he wants, sees the opportunity to get it without being caught, and can’t control his impulse to take it. He knows that stealing is wrong, but he can’t help himself.

The most important way to handle a child who steals for this reason is to give him an honest way to get what he wants. To do this you figure out what types of things are tempting him and then use them as rewards for good behavior. However, make it easy for your child to get these things. If your standards are too tough for him, he will feel unable to meet your expectations and he’ll think that stealing is the only option.

In addition, you must try to limit temptation. If your child likes to steal money or candy, then don’t leave these things lying around in plain view.

2- Your Child’s Basic Needs are not Being Met

Your child is completely dependent on you. If a child feels that his parents are not giving him those things that he needs, he will eventually try to get these things on his own. The easiest way for a child to get something is to steal it.

If this is your child’s situation it is not a criticism of you, nor does it mean you area bad parent or are depriving your child. What a person feels he needs is mostly subjective. What happens frequently is that what a parent views as a luxury a child feels is a necessity.

That means having an extra treat frequently or carrying a bit of pocket money, may be something that you feel is not something your child requires. However your child may feel a real lack without those things to the point where he is driven to fill that need.

3- Your Child Needs More Attention

This is probably the most common reason a child steals. He has an emotional void and he is tying to fill that void by taking things to make himself feel better. Your child may feel lonely and distant from you, or he may be having a lot of trouble in school or with friends. He steals to feel better.

Many children feel that they do not get the love that they need. This is not because their parents don’t love them or give them love. It is just that the love being given comes in a way that the child does not perceive it as love.

When a child does not feel he is getting love, he may act out in a number of ways. He talks back, argues, disobeys, and can be disrespectful and abusive. Some children steal.

If this is the reason your child is stealing, then punishment is very counterproductive. The solution is to show your child love in a way that he perceives it as love. This will improve your child’s behavior in every way, including getting him to stop stealing.

4- Your Child Needs More Control

Children have very little control over their lives. Some children have a great deal of trouble handling this sense of helplessness. This type of child might steal to gain a sense of power and control or just to rebel.

Children with oppositional defiant disorder tend to have a big problem with authority and control issues. The best way to handle this type of child is to get help from someone who knows how to handle these types of children. Normal parenting techniques do not work well with these children so you need an expert in ODD child behavior or ODD teen behavior.

5- Peer Pressure

This is more of a problem with older children, where friendships play a greater role in their lives. If your child has fallen into a group where stealing is one of their pastimes, then there are some very specific things you must do. For more information, see the article, What to Do When Your Teen Chooses Bad Friends.

If stealing is a problem for your child or teen you can learn specific step-by-step ways to handle this behavior.

If you child is 2-11 go to:
Child Behavior Program

If your child is 12 or older go to:
Teen Behavior Program


Anthony Kane, MD is a physician, an international lecturer, and director of special education. He is the author of a book, numerous articles, and a number of online programs dealing with ADHD treatment, ODD, child behavior issues, and education. You may visit his website, ADD ADHD Advances, and sign up for the ADD ADHD Advances online journal.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *