Almost all children have taken something that does not belong to them at some point in their lives, but children at different ages tend to have different reasons for stealing. For example, younger children may not have a complete grasp on the concept of what is means for an item to belong to someone or that items in store must be paid for. Older children have an understanding of ownership, but may not be able to control impulsive behavior.
As children move into the pre-teen and teenage years, the reasons why they might engage in stealing become broader and more complex. Many teens shoplift in the presence of friends out of a desire to impress others, as oftentimes the teens that engage in the riskiest behaviors are the most popular with peers. Some teens use stealing as a way to assert their independence from the world of adult authority. Teenagers may steal out of a sense of boredom and a desire to seek excitement. They may feel that stealing, along with other negative behaviors, is the only way to get attention from parents, or they may steal as a way to exact revenge on someone believed to have harmed them or treated them unfairly. Lastly, teens may simply steal for practical reasons, such as the desire to have a particular item that they want, but cannot afford.
If you find out that your teen is stealing, it is important to figure out the underlying reasons, so that you can address those, as well as the stealing itself. Some ideas for dealing with teens who steal include:
- If your child has stolen from a store or from another person, make a plan to return the item and/or pay for it. Ensure that your child follows through. In addition to any consequences requested or doled out by the other party, give your own consequences that relate to the theft (such as working in the home for a small amount of money per hour until the child has earned what the stolen item was worth, and then donating that money to charity), so that your child knows how seriously you are taking the situation.
- Focus on the behavior. Do not label your child as a thief. Let him know that as far as you are concerned, this is a one-time incident where he made a mistake and learned a lesson.
- Offer support, but do not try to cover for or lie for your child if the police get involved. Your teen needs to see that the consequences of her actions can be quite serious. For most teens, one interaction with police officers will be all it takes to prevent stealing in the future.
- Let your child know that you will not tolerate stealing and be clear what the consequences will be for stealing in the future. If it happens again, make sure to follow through. However, give your child the benefit of the doubt by giving him your trust, and do not make it a habit to snoop through his belongings unless you have clear evidence that he has been stealing again.
- Many teens engage in behavior with their friends that they never would do alone. If your child is stealing in the presence of friends, address this issue with her. You may consider prohibiting your from seeing friends that encourage stealing, but be realistic – this type of strategy tends to backfire and make those friends all the more appealing. Instead, help your child practice refusal skills, such as saying, “You guys can do what you want, but I can’t afford to get in any more trouble, so I’m going to wait outside.”
- Help your child understand that the consequences of stealing go beyond his own individual punishment. Talk about how stealing from stores raises the prices for everyone or what a society with no laws about stealing would look like. Having these discussions not only helps your child develop empathy for others and expands thinking skills, but the time and attention you are devoting to your child will pay off, no matter what the topic of conversation is.
- Make sure that you are a good role model for your child. Do not engage in any practice that could be construed as stealing, no matter how minor. Watch yourself for sending messages that might condone stealing, such as, “Well, they’re a big company, so they won’t notice,” or “He’s such a jerk, he deserves to lose it.”
- Try to find middle ground when it comes to material items and your teen. Understand that these items, such as clothes and electronics, mean a lot to teens, as they serve as ways for teens to express both their individuality and their belonging to a group that is important to them. Do not hand teens everything they ask for, which can create a sense of entitlement and lack of respect for the property of others. Instead, allow teens to earn the material items of their choice (free from your critical assessment of the items), either through consistent periods of good behavior or, even better, by helping them find a way to earn money.
If your teen continues to steal on a regular basis, you need to seek help from a mental health professional. A pattern of stealing can be indicative of other issues that need attention, such as anxiety or conduct disorders, or abnormalities in the brain areas that regulate impulse control.