Maybe you’ve started to notice piles of new clothes in your daughter’s closet, or some nifty electronics you know she can’t afford. Perhaps another parent warns you about a problem in your child’s peer group. Or maybe you get a dreaded call from retail security —or even the police. It all boils down to one cold realization: your child is stealing.

Parents, upon realizing that their child has been shoplifting, may feel a mixture of emotions: anger at their child, shame and guilt at their own parenting shortfalls, and the looming question: “Why?”. But the reasons behind why kids shoplift are complicated, and the reactions that parents have can sometimes make the problem even worse. So why do kids shoplift, and how should parents react to put a stop to it?

Terrence Shulman, founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending, and author of Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery, says that it is essential for parents to seek a middle ground when reacting to news of their children’s shoplifting. He cautions against doing nothing, but says that overkill can be just as bad. “Overkill, in my mind, is when a parent starts to shame a child, yell at them, overpunish or humiliate them. There are all kinds of things that can be traumatic, and leave a child feeling ashamed and angry, and can actually lead to more of the behavior.”

Anger and punishment are short-term reactions, but the problem is that your child could be shoplifting for a complex variety of reasons. That means that if the root of the behavior isn't addressed, flying off the handle will hurt, not help. Among the reasons behind shoplifting behavior are:

  • Peer pressure. Even otherwise rule-abiding kids can feel pressure from peers to engage in risky behaviors, and shoplifting is an activity that lends itself easily to dares, group participation, and a “thrill” of getting away with something illegal.
  • Boredom. Sometimes it is the element of excitement and risk-taking that is the primary motivator, especially for kids whose menu of social activities is limited.
  • Need. Children and teens may shoplift to address a direct or perceived need for new clothing or supplies. These children may feel uncomfortable asking their parents for money or believe that they simply cannot afford what they need.
  • Anxiety and depression. Many children may engage in shoplifting as a release from feelings of depression, anxiety, or frustration over elements of their lives that they feel they have no control over. Low self-esteem, a change in home life, or a death can contribute to emotional turbulence that may be behind the shoplifting.

Carole Rayburn, a clinical consulting research psychologist, says that although the reasons behind youth shoplifting are varied, kids are usually responding to a similar lure. This, says Rayburn, is “a temporary freedom from responsibility, a sort of euphoric high as kids feel, momentarily, that they don’t have to follow the rules.”

Because shoplifting is usually a symptom of a different problem, parents need to compassionately address the underlying cause. But figuring out what, if any, issue is behind your child’s behavior can be a difficult nut to crack. Shulman suggests using the incident to start a conversation with your child and open up a dialogue about his or her motivations. For example, here are some questions which may help get to the root of the problem, without making your child feel shamed or punished:

  1. “Did you do this?” Sometimes a child will try and deny it, but it’s important to get your child to own up to the deed. After he does, thank him for being honest.
  2. “Tell me the details.” Getting your child to think about what happened can focus a confused memory. It also shows that you can get past the incident itself to get the context around it.
  3. “Why did you do it?” Shulman says that a child will inevitably answer this question with a vague “I don’t know,” but that parents need to persist in order to get to the bottom of the problem. Did your child steal because she wanted something but didn’t have enough money? Was it peer pressure related?
  4. “Have you ever been stolen from?” Ask your child how that made him feel, and point out that stores are owned and operated by individuals.
  5. "Do you know that this behavior is wrong? Why?" Having your child formulate a position on shoplifting will help him use critical thinking skills instead of making unconscious decisions.

It’s dangerously easy to think that you or your child has done something horribly wrong to result in a shoplifting incident. But sometimes, especially if it’s the first time your child has stolen, it can fall into the range of the normal “acting out” that occurs during adolescence. "Children these days have so much demanded of them at school and in the home, that they want an escape," explains Rayburn. "For the moment they are doing this, they are not going along to somebody else's tune." The trick, then, is to find a tune that you and your child can go along with together.