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When Your Teenager Steals Money

Mark, I have just got to the bit about fair fighting and positive framing, really interesting and I can see how it would work a lot of the time but one of the biggest areas of conflict between my son and me is money, however much he gets he always wants more and will steal from me or his older brother and sister to get it. He has just stolen £370 from his brother's bank account by taking the card and pin no from the post. I can see how I can frame the action positively but how can I make a win win solution for him. He has had his allowance stopped until the money is paid, he is taking some out of his savings (controlled by absent father) but even so he will be weeks without money while he pays it back, I know he will take any opportunity he can to steal but I don't see how i can give him money even if he was willing to do chores, that seems disrespectful to his brother who worked two part time jobs to get the money. Help?! C.


Hi C.,

There are many things that moms can do to address stealing after it has occurred:

  • Apply consequences. Moms should decide what the specific consequences are for stealing, and apply them every time stealing occurs. Moms should inform their teens of these consequences before they are used. Consistency is very important.
  • Confront quickly. Just as it's important for moms not to overreact, it is also important that moms don't under-react. When moms find out that their teenager is stealing, they should confront and deal with the stealing immediately. The longer stealing is allowed to continue uncorrected, the more difficult it is to correct later on.
  • Remain calm. When moms discover that their teenager has stolen something it is very important that they don't overreact. Moms should keep in mind that all teens take things that don't belong to them at one time or another. Moms who become overly upset may instill feelings of guilt and shame in their teenager, which can affect self-esteem. Moms should try to remain calm instead, and should deal with stealing behaviors in as matter-of-fact a manner as possible.

Here are some more suggestions:

==> Correct the behavior. Correcting means making some kind of restitution. For example, if a teenager takes a candy bar from a store, correcting would involve requiring the teenager to return to the store and return the candy bar (if it isn't half-eaten), or if the candy bar can't be returned, paying for the candy bar. If the teenager has no money to pay for what he or she has taken, moms can loan the teenager the money and then subtract it from an allowance, or require that the teenager do chores around the house to earn the money to pay for it. It might also be a good idea for moms to require that the teenager apologize to the person from whom the item was stolen. Sometimes this is very difficult for teens, so moms may not want force the issue if their teenager is unable to make an apology. It is, however, very important that the teenager go along on the trip to make the return. It is very important that the teenager assume responsibility for correcting the misbehavior.

==> Apply natural consequences. After correcting the behavior, consequences should be applied. Having to do extra chores around the house to earn the money to pay for a stolen item is an example of a natural consequence. Another example is not allowing the teenager who stole the candy bar to have sweets for a certain period of time.

==> Additional Ideas:

  • Don't interrogate teens or force them to self-incriminate. Moms should not force their teens to admit to stealing. Teens often lie to protect themselves. If moms aren't pretty sure that their teenager has stolen something, they probably should not apply consequences. Instead, they should let their teenager know that they are skeptical, and express hope that their teenager will be honest with them.
  • Don't shame teens for stealing. Moms should try not to make their teens feel guilty for stealing. They should also try not to call their teen’s names, for example a thief or a liar. Such tactics can be very damaging to teen's self-esteem. Instead, moms should let their teens know that they are disappointed in their teen's behavior, but this does not mean that they are bad people. They should then apply consequences and treat the situation matter-of-factly.
  • Help teens find ways of earning their own money. Moms should make sure that their teens have some sort of regular income. If teens have money of their own to spend as they wish, they will be more likely to buy what they want instead of stealing it. Teens can earn money by doing chores around the house, etc.
  • Label the behavior. It is very important that moms call the behavior exactly what it is. For example, moms shouldn't call taking (without permission) what doesn't belong to one's self as "borrowing." Teens who are able to understand the concept of ownership should be told that they are "stealing" when they take something that does not belong to them.
  • Provide adequate supervision. Moms should make sure that they know what their teens are up to. Teens who are not monitored closely by their moms tend to be more likely to steal and to engage in other problem behaviors.
  • Seek professional help for persistent problems. If stealing becomes a chronic or significant problem, moms should contact a mental health professional for assistance.
  • Understand why the behavior occurred. Different teens steal for different reasons. Because of this, it is important for moms to try to find out why their teens steal. Asking a teenager why he or she has stolen something will probably not give moms the answers they need. They may need to look at what's going on in the teenager's life, what personal problems the teenager may be having, etc. Once moms find out why, corrective measures can be taken to eliminate or minimize the behavior. For example, moms could set up an allowance/chore system for a teenager who stole because he has no spending money of his own.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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