Stealing in younger children

Recently a mother brought concerns of her young school age child repeatedly stealing from family and school.  This is actually not too uncommon–teachers report about 5% of kids <10 years being caught taking from others.  There are lots of reasons for it to occur in otherwise well adjusted young ones–attention (my patient has a new sibling), anger if the offender judges some other who they think is rewarded unjustly or disproportionately, misplaced show of bravery to fit into a peer group, or as a way to impress and perhaps offer a gift to a desired friend.  Take note–it can even occur if your child mimics behavior that they witness in parents who might engage in something that people often view as small and innocuous like helping oneself to office supplies or keeping hotel towels and the like.

How should one react if confronted with an older toddler or young school age child who steals?  First, don’t panic or overreact.  Remember–children at this age have only limited impulse control and are not able to project out consequences too far beyond that moment.  Yelling, lecturing, and especially hitting (as almost always) are more typically counterproductive.  Be sure to discipline in a private one on one setting to avoid humiliating your child.  It is certainly proper to express great disappointment and also to require them to perform household chores as penance.  Explain this by saying that if he wishes to buy or own things of value then he needs to work for it.  Remove privileges like TV or video devices until all work is completed satisfactorily.  It can be good to do this work together and if able to praise his effort and performance since, as stated, sometimes these behaviors are manifestations of feelings of neglect or inadequacy.  Usually it is helpful to make your child return the stolen object and apologize.  This can even apply if objects are taken from stores or businesses however be cautious here as not all establishments will necessarily be forgiving even of these younger kids including with a first offense.

If you are concerned that these behaviors may be repeated try the following: make a written inventory of all of your child’s possessions and review it with her.  Explain that she is not allowed to own anything else beyond that list unless she has asked your permission first.  It will not be an acceptable explanation  that she “found” it or it was “given” to her unless she cleared it with you beforehand.  This can take some of the ambiguity out of these occurrences.

If these behaviors are repetitive, associated with poor or deteriorating school performance, or associated with any violence towards self, others, animals, or property it could indicate a more serious problem and should be brought to my attention. So give me a call.

Send along questions and comments and thanks for following.

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