Why Kids Steal — and Ways to Prevent It

It could be as insignificant as a cookie off the counter, or a little more troublesome such as a toy from a friend’s house—either way, many children will experiment with stealing at some point in time.

While young children do not always understand what stealing is, or know the difference between borrowing something and taking it without permission, by the time children are in elementary school they are capable of understanding the idea of ownership and what’s right and wrong.

With support and guidance, most children do not develop a persistent pattern of stealing. Knowing why kids steal and ways to talk about it with your child is a good first step in tackling the issue.

Understanding their “why”

There are several reasons why a child might steal. These include:

  • Some children lack self-control. They see something they want, and they want it now! This is especially true of preschoolers. They are still learning the important life skills of self-regulation and self-control.
  • Some children steal to “fit in” or be like their friends.
  • Stealing might be a way to get attention from peers.
  • The excitement of getting away with the crime.
  • Some children get jealous of something their friend or sibling has.

Discourage stealing habits from an early age

You can prevent stealing habits by teaching empathy at an early age. Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. Stealing, whether from a person, someone’s home, or a store, is not a victimless crime. You could say: “Taking money from my wallet without permission is stealing. I feel _________ (disappointed, angry, sad) when you take things without asking.”

You can also use the opportunity to turn the tables by asking: “How would you feel if your friend took something that belonged to you? Let’s talk about why it’s not OK for someone to take something from you without your permission.”

As your child grows, reinforce these lessons whenever the opportunity presents itself, such as siblings taking toys from each other, or your child taking the cookie off your plate when you didn’t say she could have it: “Remember, that you need to ask before taking something that isn’t yours. This cookie is mine, you already ate yours, and it hurt my feelings when you tried to take mine without asking. How would you feel if I took your cookie without asking?”

How to handle stealing when it happens

If your child is caught stealing something, stay calm and discuss the problem with your child after everyone has had a moment to settle their emotions.

Calmly state, “I know this toy doesn’t belong to you.” If you have an experience from your childhood, you could share it with your child. “When I was your age, I stole a candy bar from the corner store. I felt really scared and guilty about it. I had to apologize to the store owner and return the candy bar.”

Explain that stealing is wrong, and we want to do the right thing. Then, with your child, make a plan to apologize and return the stolen item, or if it is something they ate or used, to replace it.

You are teaching your child that when we make a mistake, we need to make amends. Think of it as “rupture and repair.” Just like when you break something, and you need to fix it or replace it, when we hurt another person by taking something that is theirs, we need to both apologize and return or replace the item.

Then, when the time is right, see if you can find out the reason your child stole the item. Listen to their reasons and offer your own reasons why stealing isn’t justified (for example, stealing from a store owner hurts them because running a store costs money; or when you steal a toy from a friend they may lose trust in you and not want to be your friend. This is why it is important to tell that friend the truth and apologize to them.

If your child is stealing because of the thrill of “getting away with it,” or because it seemed fun at the time, talk about other ways they can take risks in a safe way to get that same rush. Maybe they want to learn to ride a mountain bike or even do tricks on a skateboard. If they are younger, jumping on a trampoline or playing chase may do the trick. If they like the challenge of stealing, you could try other types of challenges like scavenger hunts or hide and seek.

Build back trust through quality time

If your child is caught stealing, you might worry that they will do it again. It can also bring up trust issues between you and your child. Sometimes stealing can be a cry for help or attention. Spending extra quality time with your child after school and on the weekends, can help build trust, honesty, and support for every member of the family.

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