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My daughter has been caught stealing lately...

"My daughter has been caught stealing lately. What do you suggest in the way of a consequence?"

Kids of all ages - from preschoolers to teenagers - can be tempted to steal for different reasons:

· Elementary school kids usually know they're not supposed to take something without paying, but they may take it anyway because they lack enough self-control.

· Preteenagers and teenagers know they're not supposed to steal, but they may steal for the thrill of it or because their friends are doing it. Some might believe they can get away with it. As they're given more control over their lives, some teenagers may steal as a way of rebelling.

· Very young kids sometimes take things they want without understanding that things cost money and that it's wrong to take something without paying for it.

And there may be more complex reasons why some kids and teenagers steal. They may be angry or want attention. Their behavior may reflect stressful problems they're having at home, at school, or with friends. Some may steal as a cry for help because of emotional or physical abuse they're enduring at home.

In other cases, kids and teenagers might steal because they can't afford to pay for what they need or want - for example, they may steal to get popular name-brand items. In some cases, they may take things to support drug habits.

Whatever the reason for stealing, parents need to find out the root of the behavior and address other underlying problems, like drug abuse, that may surface.

When a kid has been caught stealing, a parent's reaction should depend on whether it's the first time or there's a pattern of stealing.

With very young kids, parents need to help them understand that stealing is wrong - that when you take something without asking or paying for it, it hurts someone else. If a preschooler takes a piece of candy, for instance, parents can help the kid return the item. If the kid has already eaten the candy, parents can take the kid back to the store to apologize and pay for it.

With school-age kids, too, it's important to return the stolen item. By the first and second grades, kids should know stealing is wrong. But they may need a better understanding of the consequences.

Here's an example: If a kid comes home with a friend's bracelet and it's clear the kid took it without the friend's permission, the parent should talk to the kid about how it would feel if a friend took something without asking first. The parent should encourage the kid to call the friend to apologize, explain what happened, and promise to return it.

When teenagers steal, it's recommended that parents follow through with stricter consequences. For example, when a teen is caught stealing, the parent can take the kid back to the store and meet with the security department to explain and apologize for what happened.

The kid's embarrassment at facing up to what he or she did by having to return a stolen item makes for an everlasting lesson on why stealing is wrong. Further punishment, particularly physical punishment, of the kid is unnecessary and may make the kid angry and more likely to engage in even worse behavior. If it's a first-time offense, some stores and businesses may accept a kid's or teen's apology and may not necessarily press charges. However, some stores may press charges the first time around. And there's often little sympathy for repeat offenders.

Kids of all ages need to know that shoplifting isn't just about taking things from a store - it's taking money from the people who run the businesses. Plus, shoplifting makes prices higher for other customers. They should also know that stealing is a crime and can lead to consequences far worse than being grounded, including juvenile detention centers and even prison.

If a kid steals money from a parent, the kid should be offered options for paying back the money, like doing extra chores around the house. It's important, however, that a parent doesn't bait the kid by leaving out money, in the hopes of catching the kid in the act. That could damage the sense of trust between a parent and kid.

If your kid has stolen on more than one occasion, you may consider getting professional help. Repeat offenses may indicate a bigger problem.

One third of juveniles who've been caught shoplifting say it's difficult for them to quit. So, it's important to help kids and teenagers understand why stealing is wrong and that they may face serious consequences if they continue to steal.

Others who may be able to talk to you and/or your kid about the problem and help you address it include a:
  • family doctor (who may be able to refer you to a family therapist or counselor)
  • family therapist or counselor
  • minister, priest, or rabbi
  • school counselor (especially if your kid is stealing from the school)
  • support group, such as the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, and Shoplifters Anonymous, which may be able to provide information or help (look in your phone book for groups in your area)

Although ordinary acts of theft or shoplifting can be deliberate, motivated by a need, a desire, peer pressure, or rebellion, in extremely rare cases, a person who steals may have kleptomania. With this disorder, which makes up a very small portion of all shoplifting cases, a person repeatedly fails to resist impulses to steal, even though the stolen object is of little value. Individuals with kleptomania often discard the objects after stealing them and also have other personality or eating disorders.

Whatever the underlying cause, if stealing is becoming a habit with your kid or teen, you may want to speak with a doctor or therapist to get to the cause of the behavior.

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