Children Who Steal

Children Who Steal

When a child or teenager steals, adults are naturally concerned. They worry about what caused the child to steal, and may wonder whether the child is a "juvenile delinquent.”

It is normal for a very young child to take something which excites interest, according to child psychiatrists. This cannot be regarded as stealing until the youngster is old enough — usually three to five — to understand that something belongs to a particular person.

Although they have learned that theft is wrong, older children or teenagers steal for various reasons. A youngster may steal to “make things equal,” if a brother or sister seems to be favored with affection or gifts. Sometimes a child may steal as a show of bravery to friends, or to give presents and become more popular at school.

Adults should consider whether the child has stolen out of a need for more attention. In such cases, the child may be expressing anger or trying to “get even;” the stolen object may become a “substitute” for affection.

If the proper measures are taken, in most cases the stealing stops as the child grows older. When a child steals, child psychiatrists recommend the following:

• Tell the child that stealing is wrong, and why;

• Help the youngster return the stolen object;

• Make sure that the child does not benefit from the theft under any circumstance;

• Avoid lecturing, predicting future bad behavior or saying that they now consider the child to be a thief;

• Make clear that this behavior is totally out of character and unacceptable within the family tradition.

When the child has returned the stolen merchandise, the matter should not be brought up again, so that the child can begin again with a “clean slate.”

If stealing is persistent and thefts continual despite these measures, the stealing probably results from more serious problems in the child’s emotional development. Child psychiatrists know that children who steal persistently do not trust others and are not able to form close relationships. Rather than feel guilt, they blame the behavior on others, with the defense that, “Since they refuse to give me what I need, I will take it.” Some children steal out of fear of dependency; they do not wish to depend on anyone, so they take what they need.

When a child steals persistently, professionals must look at the under­lying reasons to the need to steal and seek ways to support the child in changing to a more healthy path of development.

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