Talking to Your Child About Stealing

Childhood stealing is a very common thing that many kids go through for various reasons. It can be very alarming to parents to find out that a child is stealing, but take a moment to think things through. Chances are high that your child won't grow up to pinch cars or embezzle from shareholders. Here are some ways to understand why children may steal, ways to talk to your child about stealing, and handle it.

What Is Stealing?
Stealing is deliberate, often premeditated and done with an understanding that the owner is being deprived of the item.

If your child has stolen something, it doesn't make you a bad parent. It doesn't mean that your child is a thief, liar or otherwise bad person. It also doesn't mean your child will grow up to be a criminal. It doesn't mean your child is trying to hurt you personally, although it could be a way to get your attention.

Here are some of the reasons that kids steal.

  1. The child doesn't have or use self control. Younger children in particular will struggle with self control when they want something.
  2. The child didn't have something he needed and compensated by taking the needed item or something else. This could be something his peers had that he didn't. It could be something that you couldn't afford or were unwilling to buy. In some cases, a child uses stealing to take control over a situation in which he has no control, since parents provide for his needs.
  3. The child wants to get your attention. Perhaps you've been busy with work or other activities and you don't have as much time for your child. It could be that your child simply wanted more attention that day and you didn't give it to him when he wanted it. In your child's mind, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
  4. The child caved in to peer pressure, either to gain acceptance from friends or to impress them. This is the situation you most want to avoid. Kids who lead your child into illegal behavior aren't her friends. You need to separate her from this group. Find new activities where she can meet friends who will be a positive influence. For teens, look for an adult mentor who can be a positive influence. Remember that older kids and teens who steal are the ones most likely to wind up in trouble with the law, especially if they have friends who steal. Sports, activities and afterschool jobs are all good ways to reduce the time spent with bad friends.

Stealing by Children Younger than 5
Children younger than age 5 have little concept of ownership. They also have very little impulse control. If they see something they want, they may take it because it is so tempting, or because they don't really understand that what they want doesn't belong to them. This is not stealing, because children this age have no concept of stealing.

What to Do:

  1. Stay calm. Don't yell. You child probably doesn't realize he did something wrong.
  2. Tell your child that the object doesn't belong to her and needs to be returned.
  3. Return the object together.
  4. Tell your child that taking something that belongs to someone else is wrong and that it should never be done.
  5. Let it go until next time. Then repeat steps 1 through 5. It may take a few times, but your child will get it eventually.

Children Ages 5 to 9
Children this age should know that they are doing something wrong when they steal. They often lie to cover it up, or hide the stolen object. Whether they stole for attention, to fill a need, to establish control or for the thrill of doing something secret, you need to discipline the child.

What to Do:

  1. Don't yell at the child. Yelling will only make her feel bad she got caught, not about the bad behavior.
  2. Don't call the child a liar, thief or other names. These labels show that you have a lack of respect for your child, and they have a tendency to stick and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
  3. Don't ask the child if they took the stolen item. That leaves the child with two choices - lie or tell the truth and be punished. This reinforces the idea that lying is the better choice.
  4. Tell the child that the item does not belong to him, and that taking something that doesn't belong to you is wrong. Take the child to return the item and apologize for the wrongdoing. If he stole money from you, he should work to earn it back and make restitution.
  5. Try to figure out why your child stole. If it was because he really wanted the object but had no money to buy it, figure out a way for him to save his money for things he wants to buy. If it was for attention, you'll need to set aside time for positive attention.
  6. Reduce temptation by keeping money hidden or locked away.
  7. Give the child another chance. Don't hold a grudge or treat her like a thief.

Preteens and Teens
Preteens and teens mostly steal for the thrill of it. Some steal in response to peer pressure, an emotional problem or a lack of attention. They know that it's wrong, so parents must be prepared to hand out punishments.

What to Do:

  1. Stay calm. Start by telling your child that you know what happened and it's time to have a long talk about it.
  2. Find out why he chose to steal. This is best accomplished in a calm discussion, without name calling. Listen, and don't contradict his reasons or tell him that his reasons are wrong.
  3. Explain to her that her actions were the wrong response to her reasons. Ask her what she could have done instead to fill that need.
  4. If there are legal ramifications, they will likely be an effective consequence. If you were the one who caught your child, you will have to think of an appropriate punishment to persuade him not to try it again.
  5. Enforce the punishment. Don't give in or change it.
  6. Model honest behavior. Parental modeling is the best teacher.
  7. If peers are involved, separate your child from them. Banning the friendship outright will only lead your child to keep secrets from you, so think creatively. Keeping your child too busy with activities or a job will eliminate the time for bad friends. If you've got family in another community, sending your child for a visit may help to break the bonds with bad influences.
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