Disciplining Your Children When They Steal

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

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Whether your 5-year-old purposely tries to bring home a toy from daycare or your 14-year-old steals nail polish from the store, discovering that your child stole something can be horrifying.

An isolated incident doesn't mean your child is destined for a life of crime. A healthy response from you can prevent stealing from becoming a habit.

If your child steals something, intervene right away. Use discipline strategies that teach your child stealing is wrong and deter them from taking things that don't belong to them.

Why Kids Steal

If your child is stealing, you'll need to determine the motivation behind the act before making a plan to deal with the behavior. Here are a few common reasons that kids steal.

Lack of Knowledge and Understanding

It’s common for 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.

They also might take something from a store simply because they don't understand economics. The concept of buying something just doesn't compute.

It's a great time to begin teaching your child about empathy and why stealing is wrong so they can learn to respect other people’s property. Hold regular conversations about the importance of leaving other people's belongings alone.

Poor Impulse Control

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.

Peer Pressure

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. 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.

Mental Health

Underlying behavior disorders 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. A child who is struggling with depression may use stealing as a way to cope.

Discipline Strategies to Address 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.

Here are some discipline strategies you can use to discourage stealing.

Emphasize Honesty

Have frequent conversations about honesty can go a long way to prevent lying and stealing.

Provide your child with a less serious consequence when they tell the truth and give them plenty of praise when they are honest about misdeeds.

Teach Respect for Property

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. Discuss the importance of taking good care of borrowed items and returning them to their owner.

Return Stolen Goods

If you catch your child with stolen items, insist that they promptly return the stolen goods and apologize to the victim. You might help your child write an apology letter or accompany your child to the store to return the stolen items.

Provide Consequences

A child who constantly takes their siblings’ favorite toys without permission may benefit from loaning their toys to a sibling.

Taking away privileges can also be a logical consequence. An older child may have to do extra chores to earn the money they need 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. 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. You may need to work on teaching your child better self-control skills before they are ready to have another play date.

When to Seek Professional Help

Stealing can have many legal, social, and emotional consequences for a child, including expulsion from daycare or school, and even criminal charges for teens.

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

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

A mental health professional can assist you and your child with strategies that will put a stop to stealing.

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