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Children Who Steal

Parents are naturally concerned when a child takes something that doesn`t belong to them. Parents worry about what caused their child to steal, and wonder if this is a pattern of behaviour that they should worry about.

It is common for a very young child to take something that are interested in. This cannot be regarded as stealing until the child is old enough, usually between three and five, to understand that something belongs to someone else. All parents should actively teach their children about personal property.

Although older children and teenagers have learned that theft is wrong, they sometimes take things for a variety of reasons. A child may take something in order to "make things equal" if they believe an older brother or sister is favoured with attention or gifts. Sometimes a child may take something as a show of bravery to friends, or to gain attention among peers, or in order to give presents because they think they may be more popular at school.

The child could also be expressing anger or trying to "get even" with the parents, or the stolen object may be a substitute for affection or an attempt to get attention from the parents. In this situation, the parents will need to discuss with the child what they can do to recognize the needs of the child and help the child find other more positive ways of expressing their feelings.

If parents deal with the behaviour at the time and in appropriate ways, in most cases, the stealing will stop before it becomes a problem.

When parents find out their child has taken something, they should:

  • Label the behaviour as wrong.
  • Help the child pay for, or return, the object.
  • Make sure that the child does not benefit from the theft.
  • Avoid lecturing and avoid labelling (the child as a thief)

When the situation has been dealt with, the matter should not be brought up again.

If stealing is persistent and thefts continue despite attempts to correct the problem, the stealing could be a result of more serious problems. It may be necessary to seek professional help. The professional counsellor will attempt to understand the reasons that resulted in this behaviour and develop a program to help. The School Social Worker could help by talking to you more about this or in referring to an appropriate community agency or program.

Content of this article is partially derived from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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