When You Have a Child Who Steals

March 12, 2012 by

We have a child who steals. My stepson has been stealing since he was 4 or 5 years old. This is not a simple case of “all kids steal at one point or another.” He started with toys and cell phones. When he was younger and his older brothers had Gameboys, he wanted them, too. Every time we turned around, one of his brothers’ would go missing and we’d find it under his bed. The same with cell phones; we’d find them hidden under the bed, in a lunch box, or just lying out in the open with obvious signs that texts were sent and calls were made.

My stepson came to live with us almost three years ago, when he was nine. He has not had an easy life. He did not get the nurturing he needed as a baby and was exposed to domestic violence. He has ADHD, anxiety and attachment disorder. He is in therapy and has accommodations at school. We have done everything we can to assure him he will have food and be loved and secure.

At first, his mother thought maybe he was just jealous of what the other children had, even though he was so much younger. Her solution was to buy him a Gameboy or give him an old cell phone to use. We made sure he had his own basket of snack food so he would not sneak food into his room or take the things his older brothers bought with their own money.

He has gotten the same consequence for the stealing over and over again for years. We have his therapist and psychiatrist guiding us. It is not about the consequence.  He seems to weigh the odds of getting caught with the consequence. So, he may decide to just suck it up, wait out the consequence, and soon after the cycle starts again. He has taken small items like candy and gum from the store in the past, but now we rarely take him with us, or make him keep his hands in his pockets when we do.

My oldest son is 21. He works and buys himself his own “treats.” He and his girlfriend keep ice cream in our freezer so they can enjoy it after work. Our little guy has emptied the containers and put them back in the freezer. He has been given his consequence. This last time he even wrote a ‘heartfelt’ apology letter to the girlfriend and gave her a gift card he had so she could buy more ice cream. Two days later, he ate that ice cream, too!

He came up with the idea to keep himself out of the kitchen. We moved his basket of snacks to the dining room so he would still have access to it. A few days into this new arrangement, we found a bag of cookies hidden under a tree outside. He denied that he did this. Recently we found out that he was running out of lunch money at school. We pre-pay on an account, but he is free to buy what he wants. It turns out that he was spending more than the allotted amount for lunches and running out before we paid again. The school is unable to restrict him to only buying lunch, so he is free to spend however much he wants on whatever he wants.

Yesterday we found he had taken gum from one of his brothers’ rooms. It has gotten to the point where we are on high alert all the time. If anything is missing or even misplaced, he gets blamed. We try very hard not to impose the consequence unless we have proof, but that increases his odds of having no consequence because he gets better and better at hiding the evidence.

Believe me, I understand that this is NOT about gum or food or feeling physically deprived of something. This is a compulsion. He CANNOT control his impulses. It might be filling a void in some way. This is similar to an addiction. He is an addict, and we are concerned for his future. Keeping him away from anything that tempts him is the only answer right now. The control has to come from within, and at this time he is unwilling or unable to control himself. If he wants something, he will take it. Right now it is in our home, but what about when his world expands and we cannot monitor his every move?

Emmie is the mom of two boys, ages 15 and 21, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. She is remarried and her husband also has two boys, ages 12 and 14. Emmie says, “There is always something happening at our house!”

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