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Why Children and Adolescents Steal

Children of all ages — from preschoolers to adolescents — can be tempted to steal for different reasons:
  • Preadolescents and adolescents know they're not supposed to steal, but might steal for the thrill of it or because their friends do. Some might believe they can get away with it. As they're given more control over their lives, some adolescents steal as a way of rebelling.
  • School-age children usually know they're not supposed to take something without paying, but they might do so anyway because they lack enough self-control.
  • Very young children sometimes take things they want without understanding that things cost money and that it's wrong to take something without paying for it.

And other complex reasons can be factors. Children might be angry or want attention. Their behavior may reflect stress at home, school, or with friends. Some may steal as a cry for help because of emotional or physical abuse they're enduring.

In other cases, children and adolescents 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.

What Should I Do?

When a youngster 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 children, 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 youngster return the item. If the youngster has already eaten the candy, parents can take the youngster back to the store to apologize and pay for it.

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

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

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

The embarrassment of 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, is unnecessary and could make the youngster angry and more likely to engage in even worse behavior.

If it's a first-time offense, some stores and businesses may accept an apology and not necessarily press charges. However, some stores press charges the first time around. And there's often little sympathy for repeat offenders.

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

If a Youngster Keeps Stealing—

If your youngster has stolen on more than one occasion, 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 children and adolescents 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 youngster about the problem and help you address it include a:
  • support group, such as the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) or Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA), which may be able to provide information or help (look in your phone book for groups in your area)
  • school counselor (especially if your youngster is stealing from the school)
  • minister, priest, or rabbi
  • family therapist or counselor
  • family doctor (who may be able to refer you to a family therapist or counselor)

Although most ordinary acts of theft or shoplifting are deliberate, some people who steal may have kleptomania. With this rare compulsive disorder, which makes up a very small portion of all shoplifting cases, a person feels a sense of tension or anxiety before the theft, then feels relief or gratification when committing the theft. The person may feel guilt afterward and often discard the objects after stealing them, and also might have other compulsive disorders (such as an eating disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD).

Whatever the underlying cause, if stealing is becoming a habit with your youngster or teen, consider speaking with a doctor or therapist to get to the cause of the behavior. It's also important to routinely monitoring your youngster's behavior, keep him or her away from situations in which stealing is a temptation, and establish reasonable consequences for stealing if it does occur.

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