Why Do Kids Steal

Why do kids steal? Sometimes kids steal to get your attention. Other times, they don't know that they're stealing at all. Understanding the different needs that motivate kids to steal can help you decide how to deal with the situation when it occurs. The key in stopping the behavior, no matter what the cause, is to approach your child calmly and to enforce an appropriate level of punishment.

  1. Everything's mine. Kids under the age of five don't have the same awareness of property rights that adults have. If they see something they want, they take it. In this case, a teaching moment rather than punishment is what's needed. If your child takes something from a playmate, explain that it doesn't belong to her and have her bring it back with a quick apology. If a child takes something from a store, have her bring it back and explain that things in stores must be bought with money. Find a friendly clerk and explain the situation, then have the clerk reinforce the message. Don't worry about prosecution, as most store clerks understand that toddlers don't intentionally steal. If you do run into a problem, offer to pay for the item.
  2. I've got a secret. Around the age of six, children will often test boundaries with parents to see what they can get away with. A child at this age should understand that stealing is wrong, but he make take something to see how you'll react or to see if he'll get caught. Be calm, accompany your child to return the item with an apology and enforce a small punishment, such as extra work around the house, a weekend grounding or an early bedtime for a few days. What's important here is make sure that your child understands that you know what he's up to, and sneaking around will lead to consequences.
  3. I'm in charge. Saying "no" to your child when she wants something can lead to feelings of anger and frustration. She may steal something to take control back from you. In this case, you need to work with your child to find positive ways to deal with her frustration. Help her find ways to earn extra money, teach her the benefits of delayed gratification or find a compromise that's acceptable to both of you. Remember that "no means no" doesn't teach your child anything, but a "no" with an explanation and a plan does.
  4. Look at me! Kids will steal to get your attention, thinking that negative attention is better than no attention at all. This often happens with older kids who know that stealing is wrong. You need to set a firm punishment for this kind of stealing, but try to make it positive. Ground your child, but spend part of that time talking about his need to spend time with you. After the punishment has been served, spend some one-on-one time together.
  5. Just for kicks. Teens will steal for the thrill of it, often to impress friends or out of a need to fit in. This is the most problematic type of stealing, because it points to self-esteem problems or a lack of social confidence. Kids who hang around other kids that steal could just be going through a phase, or they could have dangerous friendships that will lead to severe consequences. First, you need to separate your child from this group of friends. Grounding is a good place to start. Help your child get a job or find activities that will reduce the free time for mischief. If something of considerable value has been stolen, there may be legal consequences as well. Returning the item or offering to make restitution may enable your child to escape a more severe punishment.
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