What to Do If Your Child Steals

It's common for kids to steal once in a while.

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Nobody wants their child to steal—and it's normal to feel alarmed and concerned if you discover that yours did. Whether your preschooler sneaks a candy bar from the grocery aisle, your 7-year-old brings home a toy from a friend's house, or your 14-year-old takes nail polish from a drug store, it can be very upsetting if your child steals. And you may not know what to do to curb the behavior.

However, these incidents are not uncommon or pathological, particularly in young children and again when tweens and teens begin pushing boundaries in adolescence, says Arthur Lavin, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.

The most important thing is to address the stealing in a way that teaches kids that steading is wrong and motivates them not to do it again, suggests Dr. Lavin. First, consider why your child stole, and then how to respond.

Why Kids Steal

We are all prone to be curious about and desire what we can't have. "If you tell kids not to do something or that they can’t take something, they will want it," explains Dr. Lavin. It's understandable to moralize stealing but it isn't just as simple as being bad or wrong. In fact, says Dr. Lavin, "It's human nature to check out forbidden items. We're all primed to do it."

That said, children need to learn why it is wrong to act on that impulse and how to resist. Taking into consideration the reasons behind the behavior can help you decide how to proceed, says Candice W. Jones, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in Sanford, Florida.

There are many underlying complexities and emotions that may affect a child's decision to steal. Being aware of—and addressing—these nuances, while also providing consequences for the misbehavior, can help prevent acting on the temptation to steal in the future, says Dr. Jones.

It's also important to consider a child's age, maturity, what was stolen, and the context, says Dr. Lavin. For example, it's different to take something from a store or a stranger rather than from a family member or inside your home.

"It’s wrong for a young child to take candy from a bowl in the living room without asking. But it’s wrong because it’s breaking a rule, not because it's criminal. Taking money veers into that. So, there is a line even in a home where you are approaching criminality and begin to worry about the child’s sense of right and wrong," says Dr. Lavin.

Knowing why they took the item in question and their motivation will help you craft a more effective plan to deal with the behavior. Here are a few common reasons that kids steal.

Lack of Knowledge and Understanding

It’s common for toddlers and preschoolers to take other people’s belongings. At this age, they lack a clear understanding of how stealing affects others and how it can be harmful. "Toddlers go through a 'mine' phase. They may take something but it’s not really stealing," says Dr. Jones.

They also might take something from a store simply because they don't understand how ownership or economics work. To them, all the items along the aisles may seem to be up for grabs, explains Dr. Jones. The concept of buying something may not fully compute until kindergarten or later.

So, begin talking to your child about empathy and why stealing is wrong so they can learn to respect other people’s property. Explain that we need to buy items in order to own them and take them home.

Hold regular conversations about the importance of leaving other people's belongings alone. You can offer the example of wanting your own items to be protected and respected and offering that same respect to others.

Poor Impulse Control

Young children often struggle with impulse control. They may simply have the impulse to touch and then take something without even thinking about ownership or remembering that something may be off-limits.

In this situation, they may quickly put an object they want into their pockets without considering the consequences. Teach your child impulse control and about taking responsibility to prevent stealing.

After about 18 months old, children begin to experiment with mischief and are more prone to follow their curiosity, says Dr. Lavin. For example, if you say not to throw their spoon or touch something, they may do it anyway.

Older kids, even preteens and teens, also may simply do or take something on impulse. "Kids sometimes do things without thinking and don’t recognize the repercussions," says Dr. Lavin.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure becomes more prevalent (and powerful) from age 6 or 7 on, says Dr. Lavin. Tweens and teens may steal because they think it seems cool and everyone else is doing it. Or it may feel exciting to them, without really thinking about the consequences. They can be pressured by peers into taking goods from a 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 aren't allowed to have or can’t otherwise afford. Some teens steal as a way to rebel against authority. At this age, they know what they are doing is wrong and they’re likely to face legal issues if stealing isn’t addressed effectively.

Mental Health

Underlying behavior disorders or mental health problems can also contribute to behavior problems like stealing. A child who is struggling with emotional or family issues, such as dealing with a death or their parents’ divorce, may begin acting out by stealing.

A child who is coping with depression or another mental health condition may use stealing as a way to cope. Children who feel alone may steal for attention or as a cry for help.

"If a child is feeling compelled to cross that line and do wrong, that’s not normal and you need to wonder why that is," says Dr. Lavin. It's important to assess what is compelling your child to steal and deal with whatever issues come up.

Why You Need to Act

It's important to address any stealing incidents right away. Left unchecked, these behaviors might increase or become a more pressing issue that signals a mental health concern. An isolated incident doesn't mean your child is destined for a life of crime. It's simply important for parents to react appropriately and use the situation as a teaching moment, says Dr. Lavin.

If your child steals something, intervene immediately. Talk to them about what happened. Use discipline strategies that make clear to your child that stealing is wrong and a violation of trust, advises Dr. Lavin. A healthy response can make your child think twice if they are tempted to steal again, and prevent stealing from becoming a habit.

Discipline Strategies to Curb Stealing

Whether your child has brought home a suspicious item from school that they claim was a gift, or you’ve caught them taking something from a store, the way you address the problem will influence the likelihood that they will steal again.

"As a parent, take a moment to deal with your emotions and calm down before reacting," says Dr. Jones. Once you're thinking clearly, move on to addressing the issue with your child. Here are some specific discipline strategies you can use to discourage stealing.

Emphasize Honesty

Having frequent conversations about honesty can go a long way to preventing lying and stealing. Let them know that if they have a habit of lying, this will erode your trust and may require you to cut back on their freedoms.

Provide your child with a less serious consequence when they tell the truth about a misdeed and give them plenty of praise for their honesty. Of course, this doesn't mean letting them off the hook, just giving them motivation to be honest.

Additionally, depending on the infraction and age of the child, stealing may also be a trust violation that needs to be repaired. "There needs to be a path to restoring that trust and I’d put that on the child to come up with something," says Dr. Lavin.

Teach Respect for Property

"I would have your child explain why stealing is wrong," says Dr. Jones. Also, it's helpful to discuss the legal ramifications of stealing, especially as kids get older so that they fully understand that they could get into serious trouble if they steal, she says.

You can help a young child understand ownership by making them responsible for their belongings. For example, talk about the importance of treating toys gently. Create rules around respect that ensure everyone asks before borrowing items and knocks before entering someone else's room. Discuss the importance of taking good care of borrowed items and returning them to their owner.

"It's the parents' job to show their child where the boundaries lie and what the consequences are for crossing them," says Dr. Lavin. 

Return Stolen Goods

If you catch your child with stolen items, insist that they promptly return the stolen goods and apologize to the victim, says Dr. Jones. Do not let them benefit from stealing. You might help your child write an apology letter or accompany your child to the store to return the stolen items.

"If your middle schooler takes a candy bar out of the store without paying, that’s stealing," says Dr. Jones. It's important for them to take responsibility by returning the item and facing the consequences of their actions.

Provide Consequences

Be sure to enforce consequences when your child steals. Aim to connect the consequence to what they stole, and ideally, they should be aware of what will happen if they steal before the behavior occurs.

For example, a child who constantly takes their siblings’ favorite toys without permission may benefit from having to loan their toys to a sibling. Owning what they did and apologizing face-to-face also provides a potent consequence, says Dr. Jones.

Taking away privileges can also be a logical consequence. Frame the consequence, such as loss of screen time, as the result of the choice a child made, so that they connect their actions to this negative outcome, says Dr. Lavin. An older child may have to do extra chores to earn money to pay someone back for stolen goods.

Problem-Solve Solutions

Work together to problem-solve strategies that will reduce the likelihood of further stealing incidents. The key is to develop your child's problem-solving skills and get them involved in finding solutions to their own challenges, says Dr. Jones. Reminders about rules and expectations and checking in about items they want but can't have can be helpful.

Additionally, you may need to remove temptations for a while. For example, if shoplifting has been a problem, don’t allow your 13-year-old to be unsupervised with friends at stores. Work on improving self-control skills before they are ready to shop alone or with friends.

If a child is bringing items home from playdates that don't belong to them, they may have to wait until they re-earn your trust before going over to a friend's house again.

When to Seek Professional Help

Stealing can have many legal, social, and emotional consequences for a child, including expulsion from daycare or school, not being asked back for playdates, and even criminal charges for teens.

If your discipline strategies aren't working to curb stealing, it's important to take things a step further. If stealing has become an ongoing problem, you might need to seek professional help.

"While occasionally breaking rules and violating trust is relatively normal, actual criminality from kids is not common," says Dr. Lavin. So, if your child is engaging in stealing that rises above swiping a candy bar or another minor or isolated incident, it's time to get help from a mental health professional.

A professional counselor can identify underlying causes for stealing. Sometimes, mental health concerns, behavioral problems, social issues, or conduct disorders are at the root of the problem.

A Word From Verywell

In most instances, stealing is due to curiosity, lack of boundaries or understanding, peer pressure, and/or thrill-seeking. Typically, this behavior can be curbed through parental guidance, intervention, and consequences.

However, if a child (particularly a preteen or teen) continues the behavior, they may need professional help. A counselor can assist you and your child with strategies that will put a stop to stealing.

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6 Sources
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