I was on an impromptu shopping trip in the middle of my work day last week and overheard a mother explaining to her friend that her daughter had stolen candy from stores several times before. I glanced up at the little girl in question to take in her expression and I could see her smiling. I instantly knew why she was smiling instead of the remorseful look most would expect to see.

I see where your mind is going and no, she hadn’t stolen anything. It was the tone of her mother’s voice that made her smile.

You see there was a bit of pride and humor in her mother’s tone. Now I’m not judging her mother, I get it. I’ve had clients that express wanting to (and attempt to) take toys out of the play room. I’ve had families come to me with their children because of their budding burglary behaviors. I often laugh at their stories because it is funny in that “aren’t they so cute, kids do the darndest things” way. Especially if the child’s thievery is obvious, which it often is.

The issue in this case is that by expressing humor in the child’s presence, children learn that they earn positive attention by stealing. Guess what happens when we get attention for doing something? 

We do it even more.

Now why do kids steal in the first place? 

Some children have received messages that stealing or getting away with something is okay. For example, if you get a wrong charge for an item and then talk about how you were supposed to be charged more but the mistake wasn't caught. Some kids steal because they feel like it's the only way to get something that they want that other people have. They could be looking for acceptance or attention. For example, they could steal in an effort to make their peers like them more or they may feel slighted by someone and steal from them to "get even."

Some kids are more impulsive than others. For example, two researchers, Mischel and Ebbesen’s (1970) Stanford Marshmallow study was researching the effects of delayed gratification and the predictive factor of a child’s ability to wait on their future successes. You may have seen a similar experiment trending on social media a few months ago. Essentially children are presented with a treat and told that if they wait for the researcher to return and don’t eat the treat then they can have two servings of that treat. The researcher then leaves the room for 15 minutes. They found that children who were better at waiting used various methods like distraction, avoidance, and even falling asleep had better outcomes in certain later measurements of life success like SAT scores.

What to do if your child is stealing.

When you catch your child stealing, be sure to address the issue immediately. Do so in a firm but neutral way. Don’t show anger about the behavior because negative attention can be just as alluring as positive attention for kids. Your child must always experience a natural consequence of their behavior to learn from their mistakes. 

In the case of stealing the child must return the stolen item. If they took something from the store they should give it back to an employee or manager. If they are stealing at school, they should apologize to the child, teacher, or staff member directly. They should be encouraged to apologize verbally or they can write a note to hand to the person. 

What if your child is not remorseful? Some kids develop morality a little slower than others, but by the age of 6 or 7 childrenare capable of understanding and expressing remorse for their own behaviors. Now your child may also feel angry that they were caught or angry for having to return the item. Some may focus on the disappointment they feel towards themselves for doing something “bad” and this disappointment could also be expressed in a way that looks like anger. It’s okay for them to have these feelings too.

If your child continues stealing, appears to have no respect for authority, talks back, and has an overall defiant attitude something more serious could be going on and you should seek the help of a professional.

It’s also important to keep in mind that stealing is a behavior and most behaviors occur for an underlying reason. Stealing could be your child’s attempt at communicating that they need help with something. Maybe they’re feeling like an outcast at school, they’re feeling envious of others and need help developing their self-esteem, they could even be needing some extra positive attention from you.


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