Stealing in children: what stands behind it and how to stop the child from stealing?
It is not customary to address this problem publicly. Parents, having found out that their child is stealing, feel confusion, shame and, of course, fear: «No one has ever done this in our family», «What will I tell my friends?», «We’ve raised a delinquent!».
If theft was previously considered as something common for children from dysfunctional families, today it is not uncommon for children from families with high incomes to steal.
What stands behind children stealing? Why do kids start stealing? How to stop your child from taking what does not belong to them? You will find the answers to these, and other questions, in this article.
- The phenomenon of stealing in children
- Why kids steal?
- Stealing in children in various age groups
- Parenting mistakes
- How to react appropriately to children stealing?
- How to stop your child from stealing: the tips of a psychologist
- How to prevent stealing in children
The phenomenon of stealing in children
Almost everyone of us has felt the desire to possess something which did not belong to them, at least once in their life. But in most cases, something kept us away from crossing the line. What was it? Strong morale? Willpower? Or perhaps the fear of punishment?
Some children have developed «immunity» against theft at an early age. And for others, theft is an everyday occurrence of which the child does not even feel ashamed.
The psychology of stealing in children is such that the actions of a child do not always hold a criminal rationale behind them. Moreover, children may not always understand that their action is a manifestation of a bad deed. Therefore, before blaming a child for having a criminal predisposition, you will first of all need to find out the reason why your son or daughter began stealing.
Why kids steal?
The reasons for which children start taking the possessions or the money of others can be classified into five main types:
1. Impulsivity, the lack of self-control or of willpower
Normally, arbitrary behavior is formed by the time children reach the age of 6-7 years old. Before this time, it is difficult for a child to cope with their immediate desires. For example, bringing their favorite toy home from kindergarten or eating sweets from the table when their parents are visiting their friends.
What infuriates parents the most, is that a child does not understand the severity of their actions, does not feel remorse, and does not apologize. There is a simple explanation to that: the sections of the child’s brain responsible for self-control and moral behavior have not yet matured. The child felt like taking something and so this is what they did.
In some cases, impulsivity may still be there even past the 7 years old mark. Such children are emotionally unresponsive, unable to sympathize or empathize with other people. They remain focused solely on their needs and desires.
2. The feeling of inferiority by the child
These problems stem from parent-child relationships. Mothers and fathers in such families may be busy making money or raising younger children. As a result, the child does not feel loved or needed and suffers from loneliness. They feel the need to draw the attention of their parents on themselves, and so theft takes place.
Theft, in this case, may also be a result of an act of revenge on parents for the lack of love and attention.
In addition, the child may not have a good relationship with their classmates. Hence, the child decides to «bribe» them and buys sweets and toys with the money secretly taken from their mother’s wallet.
Such children are normally anti-social, anxious, and vulnerable. They also lack self-esteem. They are desperate for emotional support from their loved ones. However, they very often alienate others with their behavior and lose their confidence and respect.
The child can also commit theft in a state of anxiety, stress, and depression. Appropriating someone else’s possessions may be a way to discharge emotionally.
3. A lack of the distinction between what’s theirs and what’s not
Yes, it may seem that children should be familiar with these notions from the moment they are born. However, a large number of cases of stealing in children suggests otherwise, as they happen mostly because of an incorrectly formed morale.
The child may simply not understand why their mother’s scarf can be taken from the closet, however, the mother’s wallet is a banned zone. And why not take that wonderful red car toy from their friends Stephen? Stephen is a friend, hence it surely means that the car belongs to Stephen as much as it belongs to Stephen’s friends.
This rationale also involves the desire to bring a «gift» to their loved ones by taking other people’s belongings. For example, bringing home a pretty necklace from their friend’s house or the lipstick that belongs to their mother’s best friend.
Kleptomania is a pathological urge to steal something. The stolen object usually does not even hold any value for the child. They grab the first thing they see, and then forget about it or lose it very quickly.
True kleptomania is rare. Children who have it, suffer from organic brain damage. Theft is set in their perception and fixed as a form of conditioned response. Educational measures are useless in this case and the assistance of a psychiatrist is required since kleptomania is a psychiatric disorder.
5. Being forced to do so
Classmates or older children can be extorting money from a child, and issue threats to them. Children are afraid to let adults know, therefore they start looking at all possible options of finding money, which eventually involves stealing from parents, relatives, acquaintances, or even teachers.
The child may also be addicted to illegal substances and may be stealing money to purchase more drugs.
In teenage groups, especially the ones involved in criminal activity, an initiation ritual exists. To prove that they belong to the group, the newcomers have to steal something from a store, or in public transportation, or bring a large sum of money from their parent’s wallet.
It is important to understand that there is more than one reason for stealing in children. It is always a combination of weak willpower and of the feeling of inferiority coupled with a lack of adopted moral principles and issues in parent-child relationships.
Stealing in children in various age groups
The term «theft» is not really applicable to a preschooler, as their actions do not hold «criminal» reasoning behind them. Kids do not steal, they just take someone else’s things without permission. They take them because they like them and because they want to have them. They take them also because they do not yet have a clear distinction between what’s theirs and what’s not.
The child may take someone else’s possession as a form of punishment or revenge.
At school age, it is not uncommon for stolen objects to be small stationery, stickers or small toys. In the majority of the cases, kids act spontaneously, not thinking about the consequences of their actions and the feelings of others.
Thefts as a «dare» are only popular among teenagers. In a rush to prove how «cool» and independent they are, girls and boys steal chewing gum, chocolates, nail polishes, and other small things.
Theft at school age is often followed by lying. Even if the child was caught stealing, they would be denying it up until the end. Through lying, children seek to avoid fair punishment for their wrongdoing.
An absence of pocket money may also push the children into stealing: some start taking money from their parents’ wallets, some steal sweets from the grocery store counter. In these cases, they are driven by a feeling of inferiority: ‘why does everyone have it and not me?’, as well as the urge to prove their importance through possession of something.
During adolescence, the need for self-affirmation comes to the forefront as well as the desire to belong to a group. Therefore, the thefts committed at this age are often associated with the desire to purchase something that is considered to be «in trend» with the aim of becoming a part of the group of their peers. Adolescents with underdeveloped willpower and unformed moral principles are much more likely to steal.
Theft can not only be an attempt for children to assert themselves when they lack determination, but also can be motivated by other members of the friend group.
Are you worried that your child got involved with the wrong crowd and got in trouble? Put an end to your worries (if it turns out that everything is fine), or otherwise, get an understanding that there is an issue and help your child. Download the Find my Kids app from the AppStore or GooglePlay, in order to use the location services or the wiretapping of the surroundings.
Incorrect educational methods and parenting mistakes may stimulate the child to steal or may aggravate their predisposition to theft:
- inconsistency in educational measures, when in one situation the child gets punished, and in others, there is no punishment at all;
- inconsistent requests and expectation from adults, when, for example, the mother forbids something, however, the father allows it;
- a total permissiveness to the child, the absence of the right morale;
- absolute control over your child’s life;
- double standards in the family where the child is allowed to take anything they want including money, at times when their mother or father is in a good mood.
How to react appropriately to children stealing?
If your child has brought home someone else’s possession, such as a toy
- Your reaction needs to be contingent upon your child’s age. It would be useless to explain to a three-year-old how bad their action was, and how upset their friend Tom would get, once they will not find their toy. Have a one-on-one conversation with an older child, without any witnesses. Explain to them the nature of their actions and the potential consequences.
- Find out whether the child has exchanged their toy against someone else’s. This is something quite popular amongst kids.
- If the toy was brought from kindergarten, it needs to be returned and the child may eventually get the same or a similar one, from the store. It may have been their lifelong dream that you have not been aware of.
- If the toy that was brought home certainly belongs to someone else, it would need to be returned with apologies presented to their owner. This is best to be done one-on-one.
- If your son or daughter feels remorse for their actions, express your attitude towards theft, tell them that it is not something acceptable in their family. You should also let them know how upset the person who no longer has their toy or money, feels.
If your child stole some money
- Try to find out what did the child needs the money for.
- If the child is getting blackmailed by older children, there is no point in scolding them, they may already be threatened. Ask them to provide details on the situation. Get the police involved should this be necessary.
- If the child is trying to win their classmates over, through buying them sweets and toys with the stolen money, explain to them that friendship can not be built solely on materialistic aspects. Offer the child other ways to win friends – for instance, by inviting them over to your house, on a picnic, watching a movie, etc.
- It often happens that children steal money with the goal of attracting the attention of their loved ones. The money is normally found immediately and the scolding by the parents lasts for several hours. Nevertheless, the child’s goal is achieved – they’ve received their moment in the spotlight, even though it has been a negative experience. If this situation sounds familiar to you, do not spend too much time moralizing your child. Yes, the child has committed a wrongdoing, however, what is much more important at this point, is to restore your damaged relationship with them. Praise your son or daughter more often, spend time together, express interest in their life. This would surely make the cases of theft in your house, stop.
- It is highly important to come up with a punishment collectively with your child. If the child has stolen money from their parents’ wallet or at a friend’s house and has already spent it, they will need to be deprived of purchase of something they have been waiting for, from their parents (as a punishment).
How to stop your child from stealing: the tips of a psychologist
In the event of a case of stealing in children, it is absolutely crucial for the parents to make sure that their child realizes how serious their wrongdoing is. It is also highly important to make sure that their child feels that they are still loved despite that and that they deserve being forgiven.
- Do not leave unnoticed even a one-off occurrence of theft. You should certainly discuss the wrongdoing with your child and find a collective solution.
- Avoid any form of «public punishment». Have a one-on-one conversation with your child.
- If the child has not been caught stealing, do not rush to accuse them of theft. Keep the presumption of innocence in mind.
- Refrain from bold statements such as «you are a thief» or «you will go to jail» or «you will become a criminal when you grow up». When taking the ‘accusing’ stance, the parents are risking to secure a reputation of a ‘thief and a delinquent’ for their child. The child who finds themselves in this situation for the first time may develop anger, and their stealing may start getting a criminal rationale behind it. In a conversation with preschoolers, it is better to refrain from using the words «theft», «stolen», and «robbery». Replace them with «softer» terms, such as «taking someone else’s possessions» and «taking something without permission».
- Try to find out the reason for which the child started stealing money or something else. This can be triggered by a lack of self-accomplishment, a desire to attract attention, blackmail, etc. If the child starts lying and denying their wrongdoings, do not insist. Give them time to reflect on their actions.
- If you have tried everything to stop your child from stealing and lying, and nothing worked, seek the help of a psychologist.
How to prevent stealing in children
As always, it is easier to prevent an issue than to fix it, therefore it is important for parents to stick to the following recommendations:
- Express interest in your child’s life, in their worries, their happy moments, and concerns. Try your best to share their interests or to find a common activity for all family members, such as sports, camping, or walks.
- It is important to build a relationship based on mutual trust in the family, where everyone has the right to their own opinion and everyone is respected in the same way.
- There has to be less moralizing and more conversations that stem from mutual trust.
- Sooner or later, the child will experience a case of theft first-hand, as this is quite a common occurrence nowadays. Be prepared to explain to your child that they need to protect their possessions and to be vigilant, especially when interacting with strangers.
- Do not tempt the child nor the guests at your house: store your valuables and your money in a secured place, do not scatter them around the house.
- The child needs to know where their possessions are, and that they are free to use them at their own discretion. They also need to know where the belongings of their parents are, and that they can only be touched after having received the permission.
- Allocate some pocket money to your child and teach them to manage it in a correct way.
- Keep an eye on the conversations that take place inside the family. Be careful as you may be unconsciously conveying the idea that in the modern world, an honest person cannot achieve much through their hard work, and that this can only be achieved through theft and fraudulent actions.
- Try to fulfill the reasonable «wants» of children in terms of clothing, technology, and other equipment. Make a deal with them, that will be able to «earn» this money by helping you around the house.
Do not be too hard on your child. Anyone can make a mistake. Whatever the trouble your child has gotten themselves in, most importantly – do not turn your back on them, always give them a chance to redeem themselves.