What to Do When Your Child Steals

These discipline strategies can prevent your child from stealing again.
Mel Yates / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Whether your 5-year-old puts a toy from daycare in his pocket or your 14-year-old steals nail polish from the store, realizing that your child has stolen something can be horrifying. But an isolated incident of stealing certainly doesn't mean your child is destined for a life of crime. Firm and consistent discipline can prevent stealing from becoming a bad habit.

Why Kids Steal

It’s not uncommon for a preschooler to take other people’s belongings.  At this age, they tend to lack a clear understanding of how stealing affects others and how it can be harmful. It'’s a vital time to teach your child about empathy and why stealing is wrong so he can learn to respect other people’s property.

Elementary and middle-school age children often struggle with impulse control. They may quickly put an object they want into their pockets without considering the consequences. Teach your child impulse control to prevent stealing.

Junior high and high school students may steal because it’s “cool.” They can be peer pressured into taking goods from the store or stealing money from an unattended bag in the locker room.

At other times, teens steal because they want to have nice items that they can’t otherwise afford. Finally, some teens steal as a way to rebel against authority. At this age, they’re likely to face legal issues if stealing isn’t addressed effectively.

Underlying emotional or mental health problems can also contribute to behavior problems like stealing. A child who struggles to deal with his parents’ divorce may begin acting out. Or a child who is struggling with depression may use stealing as a way to cope with his emotions.

Behavior disorders can also contribute to impulsivity, a lack of remorse, and misbehavior associated with stealing.

Discipline Strategies to Address Stealing

Whether your child has brought home suspicious items from school that he claims were a gift, or you’ve caught him stealing while you’re at the mall, the way you address the problem will influence the likelihood that he'll steal again. Avoid shaming your child because shame can actually make stealing worse. Instead, follow these discipline strategies to put a stop to stealing:

  1. Place an emphasis on honesty – Frequent conversations about honesty can go a long way to prevent lying and stealing. Always provide your child with a less serious consequence when he tells the truth and provide plenty of praise whenever you catch him being honest about misdeeds.
  2. Teach your child to respect property – Help a young child understand ownership by making him responsible for his belongings. For example, talk about the importance of treating his toys gently. Create rules about respect that ensure everyone asks before borrowing items. Discuss the importance of taking good care of borrowed items and returning them to their owner.
  3. Return stolen goods – When you catch your child with stolen items, it’s important that your child return the stolen goods and apologize to the victim. Assist your child in writing an apology letter or accompany your child to return the stolen items. For some children, simply admitting they stole and returning the items can be an effective consequence.
  1. Provide a logical consequence for stealing – Returning the items to the rightful owner isn't always a big enough consequence. A child who constantly takes his brother’s favorite toys without permission may benefit from having to loan his toys to his brother. Taking away privileges can also be an effective consequence.
  2. Problem-solve future strategies – Work together to problem-solve strategies that will reduce the likelihood of further stealing incidents. You may need to remove temptations for a while. For example, don’t allow your 13-year-old to be unsupervised with friends at stores. Or you may need to work on teaching your child better self-control skills before he’s ready to have another play date.

When to Seek Professional Help

If stealing continues to be a problem despite your discipline strategies, it’s important to seek professional help. A professional counselor can identify underlying causes for stealing and assist you and your child with strategies that will put a stop to stealing. It’s important to address stealing as soon as possible to prevent the problem from getting worse.