Dealing with Stealing - What You Can Do when Your Child Steals

Stealing is a Behavior that Can Be Corrected

Sneaky boy looking for money in mummy's purse
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Stealing is a behavior that often disturbs parents, no matter what the child's age. It is unsettling when your child takes things that do not belong to him without permission. But is stealing likely to lead to more serious problems of theft in children? Not necessarily. In fact, many young children take things without asking because developmentally, they lack the understanding of boundaries as to what is theirs and what belongs to others.

With teaching, children usually can begin to understand that stealing is wrong around the age of kindergarten through first grade. At this point, they begin to realize that people actually own thing and that taking things without permission is not appropriate. Children may steal for a number of reasons. In some cases, children steal out of impulsivity without thinking through the consequences of their actions. In other cases, stealing is simply a form of misbehavior designed to get an adult's attention. In some instances, children have observed stealing by others and are modeling that behavior or have not learned from a caring adult that stealing is wrong. Children who are abused and neglected may steal because having the stolen objects gives them a sense of comfort. Still others steal for kicks or to fit in with a peer group that values that behavior or to rebel against authority. In some instances, children, particularly older children, may steal to buy alcohol or drugs.

Parents can address stealing by teaching their child what stealing is and that it is wrong to do. When the behavior occurs, if possible, parents should have the child return the stolen item and apologize for taking it. Having the child make amends in some way to the person she stole from helps her understand that stealing has consequences.

Parents should explain that stealing is wrong and is not appropriate behavior. In most cases, when children are caught stealing, direct intervention should correct the problem. It may be necessary to remind young children several times that taking things from others is wrong and that it is hurtful to others. It is important to be calm when talking with children about stealing. Calmness and firmness are always recommended over yelling or severe consequences with young children. Additionally, parents and teachers should model honest behavior themselves so that children have received positive role models at home and school. Acknowledge honest behavior in your children and compliment them on their good decisions. In rare instances, a child may continue to steal despite correction. In those cases, it may be necessary for parents to begin increasing consequences for stealing. For example, have the child return the item and possibly lose a privilege for a period of time. If the behavior continues, the consequences become increasingly significant such as grounding or taking away forms of entertainment.

Children can also be required to perform extra chores as a consequence. If the problem continues, it may be necessary to seek professional assistance. Your child's school counselor or school psychologist can usually assist with counseling and developing intervention strategies.

Talking with your child can help provide insight as to why he is stealing. Asking open-ended questions can encourage your child to talk. Remain calm. While it is okay to show that you are not pleased with the behavior, avoid shaming the child because you want him to share information openly. Say, "Tell me the reason you stole the money. What did you plan to do with the money?" Conversations such as this can help your child open up and reveal the difficulties in his life. When you know why the child stole the item, you will be more likely to be able to help him choose honest ways of solving his problems rather than resorting to stealing. Try to use the stealing episode as a teachable moment.

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