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Why is My Child Stealing and What Can I Do? Advice for Parents on Kids, Stealing and Shoplifting

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Why is My Child Stealing and What Can I Do? Advice for Parents on Kids, Stealing and Shoplifting

“My fourteen year old daughter was arrested for shoplifting make-up this week,” said Marie, a working mother of two girls. “Is this just normal teen behavior, or is it something more serious? She’s grounded for a month and I’ve taken away her iPod and computer privileges, but to tell the truth, I’m still in shock. I’m furious and I don’t even know how to talk to her about what she did.”

No matter what parents you have, no matter what mental health diagnosis, no matter what stage youre in, its wrong to steal because it hurts others.

Many parents have asked me over the years, “Is shoplifting a candy bar or cosmetics or clothes the same as stealing?” The truth is, stealing is stealing. It’s criminal, antisocial and worst of all, it corrodes a child’s development, character and integrity through the use of justifications and excuses. However, shoplifting candy bars from a store and stealing with aggression are two very different acts.

Stealing is wrong, and the best way to understand it is to examine your child’s thinking. Kids who steal often feel entitled to what they’re stealing, even though they or their parents can’t afford it. There is a fierce sense of competitiveness amongst teens and pre-teens these days regarding having the cool stuff, wearing the hip clothes, and sporting hot make-up or accessories. Many kids will resort to stealing as a response to this phenomenon. Sometimes kids even steal for the sense of excitement it gives them, or do it under peer pressure. A big part of the problem is that our society’s message is completely absent of a strongly objective morality. In most movies and songs today, the bad guys do good things and the good guys do bad things, and everybody looks the same. So kids justify what they’re doing. It’s not surprising when kids develop these ambivalent feelings about integrity, character and the difference between right and wrong.

The “Five Finger Discount”—What’s Behind a Child’s Thinking When He Shoplifts?
A child’s thinking behind this type of behavior is that “No one will get hurt and the store has a lot of money.” They rationalize that they need to have this stuff in order to be accepted. They might say, “My parents won’t allow me to buy clothing or makeup like this, so I have to steal it.” But remember this: It’s our job as parents, teachers and therapists to strongly defend the concept that stealing is wrong. Tell your children this: “Stealing is wrong for two reasons: It’s illegal and puts you at risk of being arrested and prosecuted. It’s also hurtful because when you take something that doesn’t belong to you, somewhere, someone down the line is being hurt.” Make it real to your child by explaining that if they shoplift cosmetics or video games, the company adjusts its price upwards to insulate itself, and all the rest of us pay a little more for it because of it.

If your child is caught stealing, in all cases, there needs to be meaningful consequences for the behavior.  To you as a parent, the most important aspect of your child's decision to steal is the way of thinking that preceded the stealing. She should pay whatever the consequences are for stealing, and also write an essay on how she justified it. Ask her, “What were you thinking before you stole this?” Remember this: It is in the examination of the justifications and excuses where the true learning will take place.

Certainly consequences like making her take the stolen item back to the store, apologizing and making financial amends are all very good parts of the equation. That kind of accountability can be very productive in deterring future stealing, if accompanied by an examination of the faulty thinking which drove them to do it. You also might give them the consequence of, “You can’t go to the mall for two weeks. Two weeks of no stealing.” If parents ask me, “How do I know?” I say “Don’t worry about it. They need to get another chance. You’re not there to be a cop.” Always give them the chance to earn your trust back.

Stealing with Aggression: A Whole Different Mindset
“Aggression” means a “threat of harm or violence or the use of harm or violence.” Some kids have gotten to a level of stealing where they are willing to physically assault someone else to take what they want. When dealing with stealing with aggression, the focus has to be on very strong consequences to deter future behavior, as well as a very focused examination of the thoughts, not the feelings, the thoughts which underlie this type of behavior. When people steal with aggression, they're clearly saying, “I want that bad enough that I’ll hurt you if you don’t give it to me,” which is very different than a shoplifter who says, “This won’t hurt the company, they have a lot of money.” It’s a very different mindset and has to be addressed with vigor.

Let me be clear: Stealing with aggression is hardcore antisocial behavior. When you deal with individuals who exhibit criminal behavior, you’ll often find that one-on-one, they can be very charming, pleasant, and intelligent. Many criminals have advanced social manipulative skills. The difference between a criminal and a non-criminal is that the criminal is willing to use violence and aggression to get what he wants, while the non-criminal has very strong boundaries in those areas. So when children are willing to use violence and aggression to get their way, it can be a key indicator that they are quite far down the wrong path. Of course there are always isolated incidents where kids will threaten other kids to get their way. Adolescent bravado can sometimes lead to threats. The astute adult has to ferret out which is which. But make no mistake, if your child is using threats of violence and aggression to steal, he has to be dealt with very sternly. Again, it is very difficult to counteract the media forces in our society which constantly advocate aggression and violence as legitimate means to solve problems. Our media promotes the idea that if you want or need something bad enough and you have a good excuse-making system in place, you can justify anything. And you can use aggression and violence to achieve your end.

Related: Learn how to manage your child's aggression.

So here’s the message kids are getting: “If you can justify it, then it’s OK to do it.” And we all know that kids can justify anything. So society has to react very strongly to aggression and threats involving stealing or anything else. I mean, look around you. Look at all the violence and aggression, senseless killing. Now think about this: in the minds of the kids who are committing that violence they believe it’s the OK thing to do. If you look beneath the violence, to the thinking patterns, it’s very scary. That’s why you see situations like Columbine and Virginia Tech, where kids commit horrible violence on other kids and justify it because they perceive themselves as victims. Stealing is wrong and hurtful. But stealing with aggression and violence is much more problematic and needs to be dealt with aggressively.

If Your Child is Stealing within the Family, Everyone is Paying the Price
It’s common to hear that kids steal from their family members. Younger kids after all don’t have the level of moral development that leads to them understanding that this type of stealing is wrong and hurtful. This has to be taught with patience and firmness. Stealing within the family should have the same consequences as stealing from a store, whether it’s from a sibling or a parent. Labeling, yelling and name-calling does not change the behavior. Discussions about the rights of others and respect for other’s property, followed by a consequence the child must carry out, are the preferred ways of dealing with theft in the family.

For young children, a consequence might be that they go to their room with the door open for 15 minutes, at the end of which time you come in and talk with them about stealing. Focus on the child realizing he was wrong, instead of just saying he is sorry. As kids get older, other consequences come into play, like paying rent for the stolen property, paying back the stolen money, and loss of social privileges. Tell them you’re taking away their privileges because you’re not sure they can be trusted outside of the house. Don’t forget that if someone is unsafe or untrustworthy in the house, there should be real concern about what kind of trouble they might get into outside of the house where there is even less structure.

Volume and frequency of the stealing are also important to address. If a pre-adolescent or adolescent steals a large amount of money, which is measured compared to what the family has, the police should be called and you should be starting the legal process. This is designed to hold that child legally responsible, not only family-responsible. The assumption here is that you've tried all you can within the family and it’s not working, and that now the police have to get involved. Stealing is a crime. These acts should be looked at as criminal acts more than as mental health problems. While mental health issues may be involved, adults who have mental health problems are punished for stealing just like adults without mental health problems. Prisons and correctional institutions are full of people with mental health problems who also stole. They're not in jail for mental health problems, they’re in jail for stealing.

If there’s a high frequency of theft, or stealing for no apparent reason or the hoarding of food, that can indicate deeper psychological forces at play. These kids need to be assessed to see if there’s a therapeutic response to their behavior. But make no bones about it, they also need to be held accountable in the home as well as outside of the home for their antisocial behavior.

Although stealing may be a symptom of a larger problem, it is still stealing. The lesson about not stealing has to be reinforced and the child has to be held accountable. We can’t make excuses about antisocial and harmful behavior even when it occurs in the home. Remember, you’re trying to produce a person who can function safely and productively in adult society. Excusing stealing will not produce that person. Sometimes parents minimize this behavior and it comes back to hurt them later on.

When Your Trust is Betrayed: How to let Your Child Earn it Back
The sense of betrayal that parents feel after their child has stolen from them is very real and should be addressed openly. If it’s a younger child, certainly the emotion should be screened out of it, and your child should be taught about trust. The way you’d explain trust to a younger child is by saying, “Stealing is hurtful and if somebody trusts you, it’s important not to hurt them.” Explain that trust is really a word we use for depending upon other people to do certain things or to not do certain things. The stronger that our belief is that they won’t hurt us, the deeper the sense of violation is. As kids get older and become teens, I think that their loyalties and allegiances are torn between the values of their peer group and the values of their family. Very often there’s a contradiction between the two. This contradiction needs to be tolerated by parents to a certain degree because the teenager’s developmental role is to become an individual. And one of the ways that teens do that is by pushing their parents away and by rebelling against family norms and values. A certain amount of rebelliousness should be tolerated. Nonetheless, a teenager stealing from parents is not an act of rebelliousness. It’s a violation of trust and it’s the commission of a petty crime in an arena where the teen doesn’t feel there will be severe consequences.

Related: Give your child consequences that really work.

If there are several acts of stealing, they should be dealt with sternly in the family, using the behavioral concepts that I mentioned earlier. If there is major stealing of money and other valuables, the parents should consider involving the police and pressing charges. Although this seems harsh, the principles behind it are easy to understand. If a teen is stealing from you because he perceives you as being weak and if family consequences aren’t helping with that, the family needs to seek outside help in order to strengthen itself. Secondly, and this is very important, if kids get away with stealing valuables from home, they’re going to develop a value system which allows for stealing any time the person can justify it. When I have gone to youth detention centers to talk to the teens I was working with about the crimes that got them there, they invariably had a justification for it. That type of justification, or what we call an “alibi system,” is developed and reinforced at home. In short, teens develop a way of thinking to justify their teenage behavior. They develop an alibi for everything. Once that alibi system becomes criminalized, you’ll see an increase in the amount of antisocial behavior such as stealing, drug use, and sometimes aggression. Parents who insulate kids from the consequences of their behavior are only extending, supporting and reinforcing the bad judgments that lead to those behaviors.

The way trust is won back: for younger kids, they should be told what to do in order for the family to feel like they trust them again. “Don’t take your brother’s things so I can trust you to be upstairs alone. If you steal something from your older brother, you can’t go upstairs unsupervised.” Make the child uncomfortable. Consequences make them uncomfortable. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink—but you can make them thirsty. Consequences are designed to make the child thirsty.

In addition, positive statements about trust should be made frequently with younger kids. “When you handle it that way, I know I can trust you.” Model the values you want your younger kids to have and identify them. Make statements like, “It’s good when you tell me the truth. I know I can trust you downstairs with the TV. I know I can trust you to go into my bedroom.” The more we say statements like that, that you see what your child is doing, or you hear what they’re saying, the more real it makes them feel. With older kids who steal, it’s important to say, “You’ve lost my trust, and therefore you can’t go upstairs alone. I don’t think I’m going to be able to trust you around money again. So I’m going to close my bedroom door and you can’t go in anymore.” There are parents who put locks on their doors, and I think kids should pay for those locks. But always give them a means to earn that trust back, either in that conversation or a subsequent one.

Is Your Child Stealing Chronically?
If a kid steals chronically, earning a parent’s trust back is the least of his problems. Because he’s already developing an alibi system that says it’s OK to hurt the people you love. There are plenty of parents who don’t trust their kids around their money and valuables. In today’s society, parents are second class citizens and there’s almost a societal expectation that their kids will abuse them and that they should take it, and that’s just crazy. That expectation is expressed in justifications like, “All kids steal, all kids lie, kids sometimes lose their temper.” But certainly all kids don’t lie or steal to the same degree, nor do all kids verbally abuse their parents and break things in the home. And when they do, they need to be held strictly accountable.

Right and Wrong: There is a Difference
I truly empathize with what parents are up against these days. The concept of right and wrong has taken a real beating in our recent history. It’s been replaced by the concepts of “consumerism” and “possessiveness.” Therefore, when you tell kids it is wrong to steal, they have limited formal moral and ethical training to use as a reference point, and whatever moral and ethical training they have is easily drowned out by the media, which screams at them constantly. And there’s too much excuse-making for kids’ behavior. Adults say “It’s only a stage he’s going through.” Or he has ADD. Or his father is an alcoholic. And they keep making those excuses until the kid is in serious trouble. Things like developmental stages or mental health diagnoses or family influences have to be dealt with as separate issues from the stealing or aggression. Do these issues need to be addressed? Of course they do. Are they significant? Absolutely. Should they be allowed to justify stealing or aggression? Never. No matter what parents you have, no matter what mental health diagnosis, no matter what stage you’re in, it’s wrong to steal because it hurts others.

That has to be black and white to everybody.

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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