How to Address Stealing Behavior as a Parent

Sneaky boy looking for money in mummy's purse

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Stealing is a behavior that often disturbs parents, no matter what the child's age. It is unsettling when your child takes things that do not belong to him without permission. But is stealing likely to lead to more serious problems of theft in children?

Do Young Children Understand That Stealing Is Wrong?

Not necessarily. In fact, many young children take things without asking because developmentally, they lack the understanding of boundaries as to what is theirs and what belongs to others. Until the ages of three to five, taking something which grabs your child's interest should not be considered stealing. With teaching, children usually can begin to understand that stealing is wrong around the age of kindergarten through first grade. At this point, they begin to realize that people actually own things and that taking things without permission is not appropriate.

Why Do Children Steal?

Children may steal for a number of reasons. It's important to consider the many potential reasons in order to properly deal with the behavior. For example, if a child has not been taught by an adult that stealing is "bad," addressing the stealing behavior will require a different approach than if the child was stealing to get an adult's attention, or instead as a way to rebel against the adult.

  • Sometimes children steal out of impulsivity, without thinking about the potential consequences of their actions.
  • Sometimes stealing is simply a form of misbehavior designed to get an adult's attention.
  • Unfortunately, sometimes children have observed stealing by others and are modeling that behavior.
  • Some children have not learned from a caring adult that stealing is wrong.
  • Children who are abused and neglected may steal because the stolen object gives them a sense of comfort.
  • Other children steal "for kicks."
  • Some children steal in order to fit in with a peer group that values the behavior (peer pressure.)
  • Some children steal as a way of rebelling against authority.
  • Some children steal for the feeling of independence it gives them.
  • Some children, especially older children, may steal to buy alcohol or drugs.

How Can Parents Address Stealing?

Parents can address stealing by teaching their child what stealing is and that it is wrong.

When the behavior occurs, if possible, parents should have the child return the stolen item and apologize for taking it. Having the child make amends in some way to the person she stole from helps her understand that stealing has consequences. Not only can having your child make amends help him recognize his stealing as wrong, but is an opportunity to teach him about empathy.

Parents should again explain that stealing is wrong and is not appropriate behavior. You may, at the time, be tempted to pass over the stealing, especially if there is an "understandable" reason, such as a child who is envious of a brother or sister who did get more of something. Yet, keep in mind that you are not only training your child not to steal but helping your child to learn that stealing is wrong will also help him develop a sense of trust in others.

In most cases, when children are caught stealing, direct intervention should correct the problem. It may be necessary to remind young children several times that taking things from others is wrong and that it is hurtful to others.

Additionally, parents and teachers should model honest behavior themselves so that children have received positive role models at home and school.

Calmness, Firmness, and Acknowledging Good Behavior

It is important to be calm when talking with children about stealing. Calmness and firmness are always recommended over yelling or severe consequences with young children.

Acknowledge honest behavior in your children and compliment them on their good decisions.

When Stealing Continues

In rare instances, a child may continue to steal despite the correction. In those cases, it may be necessary for parents to begin increasing consequences for stealing. For example, have the child return the item and possibly lose a privilege for a period of time. If the behavior continues, the consequences become increasingly significant such as grounding or taking away forms of entertainment. Children can also be required to perform extra chores as a consequence. You may think of other logical consequences that may work best for your particular child.

If the problem continues, it may be necessary to seek professional assistance. Your child's school counselor or school psychologist can usually assist with counseling and develop intervention strategies.

Try to Understand Why Your Child Is Stealing

Talking with your child can help provide insight as to why he is stealing. Asking open-ended questions can encourage your child to talk. Remain calm. While it is okay to show that you are not pleased with the behavior, avoid shaming the child because you want him to share information openly. Say, "Tell me the reason you stole the money. What did you plan to do with the money?" Conversations such as this can help your child open up and reveal the difficulties in his life. When you know why the child stole the item, you will be more likely to be able to help him choose honest ways of solving his problems rather than resorting to stealing. Try to use the stealing episode as a teachable moment.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Stealing in children and adolescents.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lying and Stealing.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. My child is stealing.

  4. Grant JE, Potenza MN, Krishnan-Sarin S, Cavallo DA, Desai RA. Stealing among high school students: prevalence and clinical correlatesJ Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2011;39(1):44–52.

Additional Reading

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.