Some kids steal because their friends or family members do it or because they might have been dared. They might believe their friends will like them more if they steal. Doing something for these reasons is called peer pressure, but kids don't have to give in to it. Some kids steal because they feel something is missing in their lives. What's missing may be love or attention. Or simple things like food and clothing. They may be angry, sad, scared, or jealous. They might steal as a way to deal with the situation. But stealing won't fix what's missing. Other kids might have personal problems that lead them to steal. They may feel jealous of what others have. They may feel unloved and neglected. Or they may be upset that their parents are arguing or getting divorced. But stealing won't solve these problems. Other kids don't care about rules.
Kids of all ages — from preschoolers to teens — can be tempted to steal for different reasons: cost money and that it's wrong to take something without paying for it.
School-age kids usually know they're not supposed to take something without paying, but they might do so anyway because they lack enough self-control.
Preteens and teens know they're not supposed to steal, but might steal for the thrill of it or because their friends do. Some might believe they can get away with it. As they're given more control over their lives, some teens steal as a way of rebelling.
And other complex reasons can be factors. Kids might be angry or want attention. Their behavior may reflect stress at home, school, or with friends. Some may steal as a cry for help because of emotional or physical abuse they're enduring.
In other cases, kids and teens steal because they can't afford to pay for what they need or want — for example, they may steal to get popular name-brand items. In some cases, they may take things to support drug habits.
Whatever the reason for stealing, parents need to get to the root of the behavior and address other underlying problems, like drug abuse, that may surface.
What Should I Do?
When a child has been caught stealing, a parent's reaction should depend on whether it's the first time or there's a pattern of stealing.
With very young children, parents need to help them understand that stealing is wrong — that when you take something without asking or paying for it, it hurts someone else. If a preschooler takes a piece of candy, for instance, parents can help the child return the item. If the child has already eaten the candy, parents can take the child back to the store to apologize and pay for it.
With school-age kids, too, it's important to return the stolen item. By the first and second grades, kids should know stealing is wrong. But they may need a better understanding of the consequences.
Here's an example: If a child comes home with a friend's bracelet and it's clear the child took it without the friend's permission, the parent should talk to the child about how it would feel if a friend took something without asking first. The parent should encourage the child to call the friend to apologize, explain what happened, and promise to return it. If your child has no remorse and doesn’t see why it's wrong to steal, seek help from a mental health professional right away.
When teens steal, it's recommended that parents follow through with stricter consequences. For example, when a teen is caught stealing, the parent can take the teen back to the store and meet with the security department to explain and apologize for what happened. The embarrassment of facing up to what he or she did by having to return a stolen item makes for an everlasting lesson on why stealing is wrong.
If it's a first-time offense, some stores and businesses may accept an apology and not necessarily press charges. However, some stores press charges the first time around. And there's often little sympathy for repeat offenders.
Further punishment, particularly physical punishment, is not necessary and could make a child or teen angry and more likely to engage in even worse behavior.
Kids of all ages need to know that shoplifting isn't just about taking things from a store — it's taking money from the people who run the businesses. Plus, shoplifting makes prices higher for other customers. They should also know that stealing is a crime and can lead to consequences far worse than being grounded, including juvenile detention centers and even prison.
If stealing money from a parent, the child should be offered options for paying back the money, like doing extra chores around the house. It's important, however, that a parent not bait the child by leaving out money in the hopes of catching the child in the act. That could damage the sense of trust between parents and kids.
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