Loan, Loss or Theft? How to Recognize and Solve the Problem of a Child’s Theft
May 31, 2019
“When our grandmother complained that the money in the wallet was missing, neither my husband nor I took her words seriously. We comforted her, saying that she had forgotten how much money was there, that the prices were rising so fast nowadays, and it was hard to notice how the money was spent. I was shocked when I saw my son in the hallway with grandmother’s purse in his hands. He looked confused and frightened when he realized that I had caught him. In the first minutes I could not say a word. One thought was in my head: my child is lying to me and stealing money, lying and stealing…”
– Marina, mother of Sasha, 11
It is an unpleasant situation, isn’t it? But, unfortunately, sometimes parents are faced with such a reality: a child begins to steal. Theft is a typical form of deviant behavior in children and adolescents. This is a denial of the norms of society, which is expressed in taking or using valuables which do not belong to oneself, without prior permission or notification of the owner.
Almost everyone has felt the urge to take something which did not belong to him/her. But not everyone indulged and trespassed. And those who did succumb, felt shame and tried to hide any evidence of such actions. Or, on the contrary, they did not realize that they had done something illegal.
It may happen that parents suspect theft where it doesn’t exist:
“I really liked the pocket watch, which my classmate Gena showed me during a break. We studied in the second grade. Previously, I had never seen such a wonderful thing. The watch opened like a medallion, there was a dedicatory inscription engraved inside, and its chain was beautiful and heavy. Gena told me that the watch had belonged to his grandfather, who had given it to him. and I could have it if I liked it. Before that, we were not friends with Gena, my friends and I often made fun of him. I was very surprised why my parents did not believe that the watch was gifted to me. I remember, they then phoned Gena’s parents and took the watch from me and gave it back to them”.
– Elena, from childhood memories
How do you prevent and correct a child’s disrespectful behavior in relation to someone else’s property? When is taking things considered theft and when should you be alarmed? What should you do if a teenager steals not only money from parents, but also other people’s things? Let us study the issues which are relevant for parents in this article.
- Why do children steal? Understanding the reasons for the problem
- Child’s theft in low-income and wealthy families. Types of child’s theft
- How not to behave with a child who steals money
- What do you do if a child continues to lie and steal?
- Prevention: how to prevent adolescent theft at home
- Solving the problem using the 7Spsy behavior modification technique
Why do children steal? Understanding the reasons for the problem
“When Makar was 4 years old, he had a younger sister. Around the same time, I began to notice that he was bringing other children’s toys from the kindergarten. I think it was the beginning. He answered my questions that he had exchanged with a boy from his group. Then he stopped responding and ran away to his room. I was terrified when I realized that my child had begun to steal. I did not know what to do if one of the parents started to react. I went through all his toys and found a dozen cars, motorcycles and robots belonging to other children. I was ready to burn with shame when I gave the whole bunch of “trophies” to the teacher”.
– Marina, mother of Makar, 5
Psychologists identify three main reasons of child’s theft:
- a strong desire to own the thing you like, despite the voice of conscience;
- psychological dissatisfaction, reaction to traumatic life circumstances;
- insufficiently developed moral ideas, lack of will.
People also distinguish the motivation to steal depending on age. Understanding the concepts of “one’s own” and “another’s” is formed in the minds of children of 3 years old. However, at such an early age, a child still can’t evaluate his/her actions – he/she simply takes what he/she likes. It is too early to call such a behavior “theft”. However, when the child is 4-5 years old, he/she already understands when something liked does not belong to him/her, taking someone else’s things is not good, but so far, he/she cannot control own desires and passions.
At the age of 6–7, a child begins to feel the need for socialization and wants to increase the level of self-esteem and recognition from peers. He/she solves this problem through the appropriation of material things. Moreover, the price of the thing doesn’t matter for a child, but the value does. The child is aware of the possible consequences, but the goal becomes more important than the fear of punishment. If a child cannot refuse “I want!” at the age of 8–10 years, it indicates a lack of will to work with it. 
You should pay close attention to the problem if your child is older than 10 and steals money and other valuables. Also if there is already a deliberate appropriation of another’s property, which can be associated with theft “in an adult way”. In such cases, a specialist is likely to be required. This can be either a personal consultation with a child psychologist, or remote psychological assistance. For example, taking a course of the 7Spsy behavior modification technique.
Child’s theft in low-income and wealthy families. Types of child’s theft
There is an opinion that children from poor families are more prone to theft, since they are more acutely aware of a lack of material possessions. However, there are also cases in which a child steals money from parents and relatives in rich families. The key for solving this paradox lies in the attitude to money.
Children from low-income parents are brought up with the saying “a penny saves a penny”, they are aware of the high risk of getting caught and the severity of possible consequences. A child from a poor family often takes something he likes in a shop without paying, rather than stealing money at home.
The money question is not so acute in the families with a higher income. The reason here why a child steals money from parents lies in the lack of understanding of the efforts made to provide a stable income. He/she takes money from parents or guests without shame. A family for a long time may not notice the loss of values, and the child, feeling parental love, favor, and impunity, continues to steal systematically.
Let’s consider the types of child’s theft and their prevalence in children of low-income and wealthy families:
How not to behave with a child who steals money
“Better I have no son at all than a son who is a thief!”
(from the story by N. N. Nosov “Cucumbers”)
First of all, remember: the principle of the presumption of innocence applies not only in court, but also in the home. A child should not be blamed without a good reason. But even when the guilt is obvious, and you are forced to have a strict educational conversation, try to refrain from using the words “crime”, “theft” and “thief”. Do not threaten to call the police, do not compare a child with negative characters, do not have a conversation with witnesses, and do not recall similar situations of the past which the child has already fully regretted.
Psychologist M.M. Kravtsova gives advice, regarding what parents should do if a child steals money: “Be extremely careful, be sensitive, remember that this is not a recidivist thief, but your son or daughter. You will spoil the child’s life, deprive him or her of the right to a good attitude from others, and self-confidence if you hurry to express your indignity”. 
What do you do if a child continues to lie and steal?
When approaching the question of how to wean a child from stealing, think about whether the child has experienced a deep emotional stress in recent times? Perhaps he/she was wounded by events which have occurred in the family. Speak heart to heart with your child, make it clear that he/she is loved and has the right to support.
We believe this information will be read by honest and conscientious parents who do not give clear examples for children to follow in actions which would be the opposite to the norms of behavior in society. But, perhaps, with some actions you gave a child the idea that taking someone else’s thing is acceptable. For example, you expressed a delight about finding a banknote accidentally on the street and boasted of things purchased with it? You should give an objective assessment of such situations and say you regret how frivolous you were.
But what if the establishment of such a ‘cause and effect’ connection does not solve the problem, and your child again steals money at home?
- Explain the action from a position of empathy. Tell your child how a person can feel, who has lost a needed item through someone else’s fault. Ask what emotions your child would experience if he/she were in that person’s place.
- Support your child’s self-esteem. Tell him/her about a case from your childhood when you, too, succumbed to the temptation, what emotions you experienced from the consequences of your act, and how you made the decision never to repeat such mistakes. Say that it happens with almost everyone, but it is important what decision a person makes and how he/she behaves in the future. Make it clear that a meaningful decision will become a reason to be self-proud and will cause respect from others.
- Compensate for the effects of an emotional trauma. Whatever the reason for theft, parents can take actions to make up for the deficiency felt by the child, and be more attentive and affectionate. Suggest how to improve relations at school, consider the possibility of other ways of acquiring the desired object, or offer alternatives.
- Suggest a path to correction. Instead of blaming your child, tell him/her of ways to compensate for the damage, for example return the toy to the friend and offer to give one of his/her own as a gift, help grandmother with household chores, take part in a charity event. If the child feels the consequences of the act, then this will become a memorable lesson for him/her. It is necessary to explain to your child that although it is difficult to plead guilty and return the stolen item, it is necessary, and that strong people do this. You can support your child with your presence, and when done, be sure to praise him/her. The child will then connect the act with a sense of guilt and shame and understand how people around view it.
Since this situation has occurred in your home, do not let it be the reason for devastating consequences for you and your child, try to create something positive from it. Remember that this is just a child and he/she is learning to live, and your goal is to help him/her become a strong, confident person.
Prevention: how to prevent adolescent theft at home
The correction of child’s theft is a “challenging task” for parents. It is always better to take preventative measures than to correct the consequences.
From a very young age, it should be explained with examples from fairy tales and cartoons that there are “good” and “bad” actions.
At primary school age, try to form an understanding of law and order and foster a sense of responsibility. A child should have some household chores to carry out systematically, such as taking out the trash, keeping his/her room in order and preparing clothes and the schoolbag.
Set the amount that you are willing to give to your child as pocket money and do this regularly. This will help foster financial literacy and understanding of the value of money. Give him/her small amounts regularly.
In exceptional circumstances, serious misconduct may be sanctioned, but be careful with restrictions. Your child must understand the commensurability of restrictions with the severity of violation. Otherwise, sanctions can provoke the child to lie and take money secretly.
It is important not to leave money in a visible place – don’t give cause for temptation.
Form a negative attitude towards stealing
Solving the problem using the 7Spsy behavior modification technique
The question “How to wean a child from stealing money?” is especially difficult to solve during adolescence. In a situation where a teenager steals money, it is important to prevent this from becoming a habitual mode of behavior. Mistakes in education can become irreparable. If you have concerns, you should contact specialists as soon as possible to adjust the pathological model of behavior.
The 7Spsy behavior modification technique is aimed at this. This is a patented method of behavior psychology based on the theories of I.P. Pavlov, A.A. Ukhtomsky, B.F. Skinner.
The 7Spsy behavior modification technique courses are held remotely with children from 7 years old. A child is engaged independently and individually. The course begins with a diagnosis of the problem and takes from 2 to 6 weeks. Work by this method helps identify those attitudes that have led to neglecting laws and regulations and change them to positive attitudes. As a result, the child/teenager adopts a healthy behavior model, learns to respect property rights and follows the rule of law and social behavior. Throughout the course, a psychologist will support the child and answer questions through a convenient communication channel: by phone, e-mail, or online chat.
If you notice that your child steals, do not overreact, but help to correctly assess his/her actions and banish the desire to steal.
Information from this website cannot be used for self-therapy and self-diagnostics.
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