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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

What to do when a Child Steals

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Stealing is an act that violates societal rules. Keep in mind that most children try to steal, usually because they don t understand that it s wrong. Find Out the child s motivation—did he do it impulsively or under peer pressure, or did he do it for thrills? Did he know he was doing wrong?

The seriousness of stealing needs to be gauged along developmental stages, much as cheating or lying are. Before the age of six, children don t know the implications of taking something from a store without paying for it. They don t yet understand the system for purchasing goods. That comprehension doesn t come until around six or seven years of age, when a cognitive change called "concrete operations" takes place. After that children are capable of understanding logical connections, cause and effect, rules and procedures. They are able to check their impulses, to stop and consider, "If I do this, what are the consequences?"

Children five years of age or younger steal because they see something in a store that they want. They reach out and take it. They are egocentric beings; the world is there to entertain, nurture, console them.

Older children know better. Shoplifting during elementary-school years is more unusual and probably has a lot to do with impulsivity. Children may steal simply because they want something (that their parents won t give them) badly enough. Stealing and other conduct disorders may indicate "masked depression"; that a child doesn t feel loved and is trying to grab a parent s attention; or he s responding to a specific loss or trouble at home.

Preteens, who are so worried about impressing peers and showing loyalty to their cliques, may begin to shoplift under a "dare." These children may have some self-esteem problems if they can t refuse inappropriate suggestions made by their friends. If stealing becomes frequent and seems to be generated by thrill-seeking, it is probably part of a more serious pattern of antisocial behavior. If a child is stealing large quantities of food, she may have an eating disorder like bulimia. (See Eating Disorders.)

If this is the first time your child has stolen something, remain calm. Try to view it as an opportunity to talk with him about values and to build on his trust in your ability to listen and help him. If it s the tenth episode of stealing despite your attempts to stop the behavior, seek the help of a mental-health professional.

With a young child who honestly didn t know taking the candy bar was wrong, gently and simply explain that people must pay for things at a store. Many parents have taken children back to the store to apologize and pay for the stolen item. Handled well, this is probably a good response. You re there to support a child through his apology, but you re making him take responsibility for his actions.

It s impossible to give a young child a conscience overnight, so help him build one by first imposing your own code of ethics on him. Tell him stealing is unacceptable behavior. Give a logical consequence such as going back to the store to apologize. Then monitor him more carefully the next time you re in a store. Remember, a child under five years of age is not going to contain his desires because he comprehends the abstract notion of right and wrong. He does so because he doesn t want to lose your approval.

Ask why he stole. If it was because he desperately wanted that item, help him think of alternative ways to obtain it. (If you refuse even to consider a child s request for a toy and won t help him find a way of purchasing it, don t be surprised if he simply takes it.) If the item was too expensive for him to purchase with his usual allowance, find extra work around the house that he can do to help pay for it.

You are your child s guide. It s your job to help him learn to think through options so that he can grow into a self-regulating adult. Remember, too, that you are a child s model for values. If he sees you bringing home paper clips and stationery from the office for personal use or for his art projects, or if he watches you let a cashier give you too much change, it may be hard for him to understand the difference between that and taking some chewing gum. Hold yourself to the same standards you do him.

Adapted with permission from the A to Z Guide to your Child's Behavior. David Mrazek, Ph.D., and William Garrison, Ph.D., Perigee Books, 1993.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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