Has your child been caught stealing from you or someone else? Have you found him using your credit card for online gaming, taking money from your wallet without asking, or even taking big-ticket items from your house?
The anger, disappointment, and lack of trust you feel can be destructive for your relationship. Empowering Parents coach Carole Banks has some advice.
Stealing is not about you and your parenting—it’s about your child and the inappropriate ways he’s choosing to solve his problems at the moment.
If your child has been caught stealing, you might have wondered, “Why would my child do this after everything we’ve taught him?” Many parents question their own abilities and wonder where they’ve gone wrong with their child when theft is involved.
And while it’s disappointing and frustrating for parents when their child steals, I firmly believe that in most cases, it’s a behavior that can be changed.
There is a big difference between children under the age of 6 taking something compared to older kids who steal. Really young kids don’t have a sense of right and wrong about this issue yet. Their brains haven’t developed enough to think outside of themselves and about others.
If your younger child has been taking things, focus on teaching him the skills of sharing. Teach him to ask for what he would like to have. And teach him to take turns.
When your child gets to be a little older, you need to coach him to say, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken that without asking.” But you don’t want to make him feel like he’s a bad person. And don’t label it as stealing. Instead, make it clear that taking something without asking is wrong.
If your child is nine or older and he’s taking things from you or others, you should treat the problem more seriously. As James Lehman says, “Understand that your child is using faulty thinking as a way to solve his problem.”
The “problem” might be that your ten–year–old wants a new video game, but doesn’t have any money. He “solves” it by taking money from your wallet without asking. He’s probably thinking, “I need this money. Mom’s not even going to notice.”
When you catch your child using this faulty thinking, you can say:
“Just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s okay to take it without asking.”
And then ask:
“What should you do next time?”
It’s important that you don’t allow your child to keep what he took. He should never benefit in any way from taking something from someone else. You don’t ever want stealing to pay off.
Many parents will call parent coaching when their kids have taken something from a store. They’re worried their child will be prosecuted if he takes the shoplifted item back. They decide to give the child a consequence, such as no T.V., but they allow the child to keep the stolen item.
It’s really best to require your child to take the item back to the store. I understand this can be a complicated decision, depending on the age of your child and where you live. This has to be a choice you make after weighing all possible outcomes.
If you decide against having your child take it back, make sure he doesn’t get off scot-free. Give him consequences at home—and do not let him keep the item. You ultimately want your child to learn that when you harm someone, even if it’s the owner of a store, you should make amends directly to that person. That is why the best lesson is for your child to take the item back.
I’ve talked with many parents whose kids have used their credit card to buy something online. Often, they’ve used it for gaming. Even if the money is gone and cannot be retrieved, don’t let your child off the hook. He can make amends by doing something extra around the house to work it off. For example, he can clean out the basement, the garage, or do yard work.
The bottom line is that you want to try to teach your child to make amends to the person he’s wronged. In this case, that person is you. I also recommend that you log on to your credit card account frequently, daily if necessary, to monitor your card’s activity.
If your child is taking large amounts of money or big-ticket items from your home, I think you need to question why. If you think drugs might be involved, there are probably other signs that are telling you that your child has a problem, like changes in mood or personality. You should definitely look into the possibility that he’s taking drugs and rule it out.
If you know your child has a problem but you haven’t been able to get him off drugs or into treatment, then consider reporting his thefts to the police to get him into the juvenile justice system. Many states have drug court, where kids do not have to serve sentences in a juvenile detention center as long as they’re in treatment and clean. If you suspect drugs, reporting repetitive theft to the police can be a good course of action.
Here’s the truth: a child who is never made to be accountable will never learn from his mistakes. In your own home, have your kids make amends as directly to you or the injured party. This drives home the meaning of what they’ve actually done. It lets them know that their actions have caused harm to someone.
If your child can’t stop stealing, you need to help level the playing field for him by finding out what’s causing this to happen over and over. You also might want to secure items in your home and keep your wallet in a safe place at all times until your child can learn how to solve his problems more appropriately.
I want to stress that even if you’re worried about your child’s character, don’t let him think that you feel he’s a bad, horrible person. Rather, you need to convey the opposite. He needs to make amends and do the right thing because that is what good people do. You want to say things like:
“I know it’s hard, but I believe you can do it.”
When you change your opinion of your child as a person and start thinking that he’s “bad” or that there’s something wrong with his character, there is great potential to harm the relationship. Your child will sense that you have a poor opinion of him and could start to lose hope in his ability to ever change.
If your child continues to take things from you, you will need to firmly address his faulty thinking. There may be an emotional need or impulsivity that drives his behavior.
There are also many people who call the Support Line with adopted kids who steal from their families. Not all adopted kids steal of course, but sometimes kids with traumatic backgrounds may have trouble trusting other people to meet their needs, so they take food and other items and hoard them.
I often tell parents that if you know for sure that your child has stolen something, act with that knowledge. Just say:
“I think that you used my credit card because you wanted to download some songs from iTunes. And I’m going to ask you to make amends for that.”
If you don’t know for certain and your child denies the theft, then I don’t think you can give him a consequence. You don’t want to accuse your child of something that he hasn’t done because it can end up really backfiring on you. He may act out just because you believe he’s capable of it. Basically, unless you catch your child red-handed, I wouldn’t punish him.
I understand that parents feel hurt and betrayed after their child has stolen something. But try not to take the fact that he stole personally. Stealing is not about you and your parenting. Rather, it’s about your child and the inappropriate ways he’s choosing to solve his problems at the moment.
Carole Banks, LCSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 16 years, and is a former online parent coach for Empowering Parents. She is also the mother of three grown children and grandmother of six.