Parents have been borrowing lots of tips from me on what to do if they find their young child stealing something. 

While stealing a base or a basketball from another player may be a fair play in a game, when a child takes something that belongs to someone else, it isn’t fair – even if it is something as small as a piece of candy taken from a store or someone’s home without permission. 

Younger children under 4 may not understand that stealing is wrong, but by age 5 or 6, children should be able to recognize that stealing is unacceptable behavior. So why is it done? Some school-age children may simply lack self-control and don’t ask to buy or borrow something first, but simply take it without asking or paying. 

As children get older, however, their sense of self-control matures and stealing will usually stop. Teens and preteens may do it out of peer pressure or as a type of rebellion, even when they know it is wrong. Other older children and teens may steal because they are missing love and attention due to their feeling unloved or neglected by their parents. What those children don’t realize is that stealing is not the way to get a parent’s attention or find the love that is missing from their life. 

So what should parents do if their child is caught stealing? First, figure out why your child is stealing and what the motivation is. Don’t grill, berate, or yell at your child or they will just continue to avoid you and perhaps steal even more.

Parents of young children should help them understand that stealing is wrong and it hurts someone else when something of theirs is taken without asking or paying for it first. Speak with school-age children in a calm, but firm, manner about what they did, perhaps asking the child how they would feel if someone took something of theirs without their permission. 

If teens steal, there should be strict consequences. Meeting with the store owner or with the head of security for that store where the stealing occurred may be all it takes to stop the behavior. Older children need to understand that stealing is a crime and can lead to consequences far worse than just being grounded, including spending time in a juvenile detention center and possibly even prison.

Most importantly, please remember that your child stealing is not a reflection of your parenting skills. Most children who do this only do it once – for reasons I have shared. If you help them, the stealing should stop. So continue to stress the values and ethics that are important to your family.

Hopefully tips like this will not rob you of what you need to know if you ever find your child or teen stealing.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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