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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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  • Smiley71 Says:

    I sympathize with you! I have gone through the same thing with my daughter. She has never been deprived or been a victim of abuse, but she is compulsed to steal. She has even taken small things from her friends. She is constantly taking money, candy, electronics, etc. She is 16 now and we still struggle with it. The worst is I feel that she has just learned to lie even more to cover this compulsion. She has lied about strange things, telling peers completely untrue stories about her life. I have tried counseling, she lies to them. We continue to give consequences when we can prove it also. I just keep trying…

  • Ashley S Says:

    I could have written this myself about my 12 y/o step-daughter. We have a huge problem with food going missing (pudding cups to granola bars), my makeup and clothing, my jewelry, small amounts of money out of my husband’s wallet, clothing and small school supplies from kids at school, etc. It has been going on since she was 4 and we’ve never found a way to combat it. She too has a punishment and we have done things to try and deter her but nothing seems to help.

    It’s not about the item she steals – it’s about the lying and the deceit that follows. If she would simply ask to have a granola bar then we would be more than happy to give it to her but she never asks, she just takes. And she rarely takes just one thing. Instead, entire boxes go missing at a time and she binges on them in her room. She then stuffs the wrappers and half eating food into various containers in her room causing a huge smell/bug issue. We now have to weekly go into her room to look for things just so that we don’t have the smell/bug issue. She will also adamantly deny having ever taken the objects and will lie directly to our faces.

    We have no idea how to fix this and it has been causing huge issues in our home. We’ve started locking our bedroom door during the day just to keep her from going through and taking our private things. We also have to check her pockets every time we leave a store and she has to remain beside us the entire time because of recent stealing candy issues. My husband has even considered putting a sensory alarm in the stairway during the evenings because she takes the majority of the items after we’ve done to bed.

    She doesn’t seem to want to attempt to control herself and we’re worried about the road this behavior will lead her down.

  • Scentsy Says:

    My son who is now 36 had a problem when he was younger. At first it started out as little things, like candy or gum. He was good at hiding it, but if we did catch him we did punish him, sometime bringing him back to the store and making him give it back to the manager. We really thought this would work, but it didn’t. When he was in high school, he broke into another student’s car and took her stereo. Of course, someone saw him and reported it. The police came and arrested him. There had been a string of thefts in the school and they decided that it must be associated with my son. It was not him, but he was persecuted by schoolmates, faculty and the police. This is what it took for him to decide that this was not the road he wanted to continue on and it was the last of his ‘stealing’. Now he admits it was for the thrill of it and the attention. We were good parents, like these parents, and tried to do everything we could, but nothing we did helped, it just made him sneakier about it.
    He is happily married, has a good job and is the father of a beautiful 5 yr old daughter. I am so grateful that he was arrested, or his life today might be very different.

  • crystal Says:

    My 14 year old step daughter does the same thing only its not just little things.She does the food toys cell phones ect. but also, She has taken a $300 shipment of contacts from our niebors front porch, come home with hundreds of dollars worth of stuff from a local store. we have tried eveything that we can think of including turning her over to the police. but nothing we done has helped. we even when we catch her red handed, she will deny it. all i can say is keep trying.

  • Says:

    Hello to all, I must say that I sympathize with all of you. My husband and myself are in the same boat with my son. At one point in my life I sent my son to live with my father in virginia so that I could get things with my own life together (from ages 3-6). when my son came back to live with me i was married with 3 step children and my husband and i had a baby. My son has been diagnosed with oppisitional defiant disorder, adhd, and bipolar. At first as u all say the stealing was little things, gum candy, toys, and then it became money cell phones ect… my son is 14 now and he was just arrested in january 2 different times two weeks apart for steeling a cell phone. We punished him, I mean that he was truely punished eveything was stripped form his room, I left him with a bed a dresser, and clothes, NO toys , tv ,stereo ect… We also did not leave him alone at all in the house everywhere he went he needed to ask and have someone with him. ( I guess u could say that I made home feel like prison for him until his court date). I as a parent begged the school to press charges and begged the cops to do the full arrest processas they would normally do to teach him a lesson. We just went to court last week for the charges, I begged the judge for help and of course everyhing comes in stages, especially with minors. they wanted to just put him into intensive outpatient counsiling, and I told the judge that he has been in counciling for about 9 years and we go weekly, at one point we did 3 times a week. so in my eyes we already did intensive outpatient treatment and look where it got us-nowhere. so I pleaded with the judge to please consider a day program. (a day program is where they pull your child out of his current school and he is placed elsewhere to do schooling and counciling everydday, not just individual counciling but group therapy as well.) He agreed with me. Now just to let you all know, It might sound cruel bet sometimes we have to give our kids hard love to make them grow up a little bit. I can tell you that before we went into the courtroom my son was scared. when we left and he understood everything he gave me a hug and said thank you mom. So it seems like he is sincere about wanting to change and I hope he does for his sake. I hope this helps . God Bless to all, and keep hanging in there DONT GIVE UP! If your child sees you giving up then they will too.

  • PNDad Says:

    A child did not learn to steal on his/her own. the first action (other than stopping the stealing) is find the source that has encourgaged child to steal. Once you have done that you can begin to teach child how that information was both wrong and incorrect. In meantime start taking things from child so he/she knows how it feels

  • DB88 Says:

    I have a 7-year-old who stole her first item about a year ago. She was with her Grammie who did not make her return it to the store. Anyway, our city has a wonderful police department and I told my daughter that I would have her talk with Officer Strube if it happened again. Well guess what – it did. However, Officer Strube had been reassigned. So, I took my daughter to the police department (she had no idea – it looks like a bank from the outside), called the dispatcher from the lobby (I had spoken to him earlier), and he dispatched a wonderful police officer to sit with us and talk about stealing. Yep – she’s only 7, but she hasn’t done it since. Also, talking with the department ahead of time is important – the police officer that spoke with my daugher did not act in an accusatory manner and mainly talked about right and wrong. Now – if she was 13 – I might shake things up a bit. :) GOOD LUCK!

  • momof2 Says:

    I thought I was alone with all of this… My son started to steal little things like an eraser or pencil in school from friends or kids in class when he was in elementary school. He has ADHD, Now that he is 13 it has gotten worse he , for the last 3 or so yrs has been taking food in his room , hiding it, taking money out of my wallet (even though he knows if he asks I’ll give it to him)He has taken Phones, Cameras…etc….. I could go on and on…I can’t leave him alone by himself because I don’t want him to go into our bedroom He will take something….It is terrible. Whenever something is missing he is always blamed. The last time we blamed him but my daughter forgot she left it at her friends house. My fear is this is only going to get worse! I need to send him somewhere this summer that will give him a scare! He doesn’t care about his grades, doesn’t care about anything and scares me what will come next!

  • Lonette Says:

    We are going through the same thing you all have been through. I am so glad to have found you. I won’t waste time telling you all we have been through because it is just about identical to yours. I hope what I have learned here and all we are doing from every angle (therapy, discipline, tough love) prayer will have an affect on our daughter. She is ADHD, ODD and an adoptive child from a family who grew up doing the same things she is doing now. Her birthmom’s history is just like all of your stories. I hope we can break this cycle for her sake as well as ours. In our prayers, Lonnette

  • Becki Says:

    Like most of you we have experienced the same problems. It started small also, like change from my car,few juice boxes snuck into room. Them progressed to candy, drinks and platefuls of food even though we punished by taking away priveleges. Then the pot and alcohol, which at 15 we are still dealing with. Our son suffers from ADHD, ODD and a mood disorder. We are at a loss to know how much of this is inherited from his birthmom (she has ADHD and bi-polar) and how much is a “teenage stage”. We have been on the therapist and Physchiatrist route for about five years. We have had the police come and read “the riot act” and he gets better for a week or so. Comments

  • D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Says:

    To “Becki”: Thank you for letting us know what has been going on for you and your family. You make some excellent points. It may not be possible to determine how much of your son’s behavior is inherited and how much is part of being a teen. However, as James Lehman outlines in his article Is It an Adolescent Phase—or Out-of-Control Behavior?, behaviors such as drinking and smoking pot are not a normal part of adolescent development but should be considered warning signs of other possible issues. It sounds like you are addressing those issues through therapy, which can be beneficial. Calling the police for use of illegal substances, underage drinking or other out of control behaviors is a response we support. Sometimes it is necessary to call in a higher authority when your authority isn’t enough. This also lets your son know there are natural consequences for his behaviors. In the end, you can’t really control your son’s choices; nonetheless, you can control how you choose to respond to his behaviors. From our perspective, it sounds like you are doing a great job holding him accountable and getting him the help he may need to develop better skills. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to address these challenges. Take care.

  • M.metcalf Says:

    We have my eight year old great nephew living with us for the past three years. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. His stealing started with food and drink and then toys and household items and now large amounts of money. $55 then $75 in two goes and then $40. Small change as well. He does not seem to be repentant at all and just smiles at me when I chastise him. I tried the police station talk, the school talk and counseling. I have tried telling him to ask for what he wants to no avail. I can not leave him alone in any room of our house because he will find something to take and hide. The only time he is sorry is when he gets caught and he wants to get out of the punishment. I wonder if it is inherited because his maternal family have nearly all been in trouble with the law for dishonesty or worse. I have no idea what to do for this child.

  • D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Says:

    To “M.metcalf”: Your great nephew is very lucky to have you as a support in his life. I’m sorry you have to deal with such a challenging situation. It can be frustrating when it seems you have done everything possible and a behavior continues. It’s great you have been talking with your great nephew about stealing. You might also consider having a conversation with him that includes these three points: what he was thinking before he stole the item, why it isn’t ok to steal and what can he do differently next time. In the article Why is My Child Stealing and What Can I Do? Advice for Parents on Kids, Stealing and Shoplifting James Lehman suggests having the child write an essay that covers these three points. He also suggests having the child pay rent on the item (if it’s something that can be given back) or being responsible for replacing the item. You can withhold a privilege until these two things are complete. What that might look like in your situation is you start with having a problem-solving conversation that includes the above mentioned points. At the end of the conversation, you let your great nephew know he needs to write an essay and pay the money back he has taken. Until those two things are complete, a privilege is going to be put on hold. You may have to have this conversation several times to help him develop a replacement behavior. Keep in mind consistency and repetition are going to be key in helping to turn his behavior around. We hope this information is useful. We wish you and your family the best.Take care.

  • mom3x6 Says:

    I just realized I had the wrong reaction to my 10 year old son’s stealing. He was adopted when he was 2 years old and has ADHD. He has been taking little things for years, including hiding evidence of food stealing. He also still has bed-wetting accidents almost daily and hides the diapers under the cabinets, in his clothes drawers and anywhere he can cram them. Of course he denies everything, then says he doesn’t know why he does it. He recently stole money we made at a yard sale from my purse in my bedroom and gave it away to his friends at school, whose parents (luckily) reported it to the principal, who in turn called me. I was so mad that I told him he was practicing to go to jail because he kept stealing bigger and bigger things and getting better at lying about things. He replied that he stole because he thought he could get away with it. I have always spoken and explained to him what values we have, he’s seen me return lost purses, money, etc to owners and businesses, and when he stole this last time I snapped and did the opposite of what I should have done. I cancelled a prepaid school overnight field trip with his class and told him the amount he stole represented his christmas presents-therefore he wasn’t getting any this year. Now, reading this site I see I might be wrong. Is there a chance at fixing this?

  • Emmie Says:

    Hey, is my step-son living at your house? Seriously, I could have written this. I am no expert, but I have learned a lot over the past 3 years by seeking the help of experts. It is amazing how many of these children have the same exact behaviors, as if they read the manual! First off, if it is not too late to re-enroll for the field trip, that is an ok thing to do. It is Ok to let a child know you were angry and made a mistake when thinking of a consequence. The same with Christmas. I am not saying to NOT give a consequence, but those were desperate attempts to give some meaningful one. Believe me, we’ve all done it! The consequence does not seem to be important or actually be something that will make them learn, it is the fact that you consistently provide the same consequence that one day may sink in. Consequences mean nothing to my step son, he says he gets used to being in his room or losing tv for a week, or whatever. But we have to still give it to him. Sounds crazy, but… Does he get therapy? We have seen minor changes over the past 3 years since he moved in. He did get in trouble with the law by scratching cars and he has to see a probation officer and we told him it has moved outside the family now. He still wets occassionally & he is almost 13. The therapist says that is anxiety. Also, the hiding things is a sign of not trusting the adults in his life. He did the same thing with the pullups. We’d find them everywhere. He seems to be wetting less these days but this weekend I found a suitcase full of soiled/wet pullups in his closet. I am sure they are at least a few weeks old, but that now solves the smell problem we blamed on the cat! Last night in therapy the therapist talked about the hiding. He hides things and he hides his feelings. He will keep inside something he is angry at and then it will come out in bad ways, like scratching cars. It’s all about trust and they have to learn to trust on their own terms, no matter what example you show them and it is frustrating. My only advice is to get professional help and try to take care of yourself as well, which is easier said than done. Have someone point out to you the tiniest successes he has so you can praise him (you will be so focused on the bad you will miss the tiny good things!). Hang in there!

  • Alexis Says:

    Well, I have an odd one. Our second child moved out this summer and our 13 year old is stealing. I’m not sure if we’re seeing more of it or if we’re just catching on. Electronics, food, apps, etc. We found that he had hidden the stuff in his boxspring.

    Now, he is ADHD, mood d/o and possibly Asperger’s. He’s in tears, writes apologies, helps other kids in trouble and is a complete angel. He isn’t abusive (sibling confrontations but they are usually a shove and a drama production from the 9 year old). He KNOWS he’s doing the wrong thing, we’ve gone the essay route, we’ve removed his door (little brother likes to wake up at all hours of the night and share playtime…this results in a bog-beast in the AM. He doesn’t really even yell at his brother, he just asks how he’d like to lose sleep…

    We have locked stuff up, hidden things, explained that trust is earned, but love is constant.

    Once he shoplifted and I marched the kids to the store manager for a talk. That seemingly stopped the store shoplifting.

    Seems like he’s willing to go the “easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” route. Instant gratification.

    Background: his oldest brother was deeply ED/CD/bipolar II/ADHD/etc and acted out. We had one he## of a time maintaining 4 kids with complete chaos. In spite of that, the other kids help other kids who face challenges and advocate for those who have issues. They aren’t hard hearted or closed off. I’ve been dealing with abnormal psyche for 22 years, now. I have an OJT master’s in psychology and medication management!!

    But what in the world do I do with someone I cannot reward, or who will not be effected by natural consequences (seems like the system starts by tearing the family apart before realizing the identified individual really IS having issues that need addressing)

    My husband has ended up in tears, and we’ve explained to him that this is out of our control and will end him up in places he doesn’t want to be. We’ve never hidden the consequences from any of the kids, and they’ve seen them come to fruition each time.

    Counseling is a waste of time most of the time, the only thing it would possibly provide is an additional person to hold him accountable. That’s it.

    He’s medicated and the only things I am left with is a strictly structured life with constant supervision. Having fibromyalgia, Lyme Disease (with no mint, dang it) and assorted other auto-immune adventures…I have consistency issues which are a serious Achilles’ heel for things like this.

    People ask why I don’t drink (having 4 ADHD, bipolar kids)…I explain that I don’t have the attention span to remember to drink. Plus the fact, root beer floats can soothe most ills except when you can’t wedge yourself into your jeans with a can of Crisco and an engine hoist.

    I love my kids, and they know they each have grey hairs named after them…but when you are faced with someone who seemingly has nothing to lose, it tends to drive one batty. It’s like nailing jelly to a tree. Passive/aggressive adventures without the cool t-shirt at the end….>sigh<