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My Kid Steals! How to Stop Sticky Fingers Without Shame

Rachael Moshman
April 1, 2015

Emotional and neurological reasons are sometimes at play when a kid steals. Here's what to look for, and what you can do about it.

You get home from the grocery store, put the food away -- and find candy in your child's pocket that you didn't pay for. "My kid steals!" you think, panicking. Thankfully, it's not a reflection of your parenting skills, and your kid's not destined for a life of crime. Here's what you need to know about stealing, and how to make it to stop.

Why Do Children Steal?
"Most children don't understand the concept of ownership before age 4 or 5, and most children don't have the impulse control to resist picking up something that belongs to someone else until about the same age," explains Dr. Serena Patterson, family and child psychologist and co-author of "Hunter, Faith and the Ancestors." Preschoolers aren't being malicious when they take something that's not theirs -- they truly don't know any better.

In school-age kids, there may be more at play behind this misbehavior. There's often either a neurological or emotional issue for the stealing in older children, Dr. Patterson says. "Emotional issues signal a child who longs for something and believes that it is not available to them through straightforward means. Stealing that is accompanied by lying and deliberate planning is more likely to be emotionally based." She adds that stealing in a child over 6 may be a sign of ADHD, so talk to your pediatrician to explore if this or another impulse control disorder is impacting your child.

How to Stop Stealing
Colleen Payne, director of Montessori Country Day School, has dealt with stealing often. She says, "Addressing the behavior reinforces the socially acceptable ways to obtain things, and teaches respect for others. To curb such behavior, start with a gentle but clear and direct conversation that lets the child know that they may not take items that do not belong to them."

Be matter-of-fact while disciplining, but avoid shaming your child, suggests Dr. Patterson. Do not scold her in front of others. "Insist that the child restore what was taken. Give her support, but make sure she does enough of the work herself to feel she's 'owned' the situation."

Dr. Patterson says that it's important to get to the root of this misbehavior before your child's guilt pushes him into more sneaking, hiding and lying to cover it. Here are her tips for stopping this type of behavior if you discover that your kid steals:

  • Ask questions. When you see new things and you don't know where they came from, ask your child about them.
  • Reduce temptations. Keep little ones in the cart while shopping, and don't leave sweet treats or money on the counter.
  • Check pockets frequently. Also check any other hiding spots you think your child may be using.
  • Have the child return any found items -- immediately. Even if it means a trip back to the store, have your child return stolen objects and apologize to the item's owner.
  • Replace items. If stolen food has been eaten or a toy is no longer fit to return, ask your little one to come up with a plan to replace it.

If you know this is a frequent issue for your child, alert other caregivers and let them know how you'd prefer they discipline your tot. It's important that caregivers stay calm and don't lecture or punish the child -- shaming often makes the behavior worse, Dr. Patterson says. Payne says caregivers should insist that all items are returned right away, no matter how small. Saying, "Oh, just let him keep it," doesn't help, so make sure everyone who tends to your toddler knows the appropriate way to handle this delicate situation.

And check out How a Nanny Should Discipline Your Kids.

Rachael Moshman, M.Ed., has worked with young children and their families for decades. She's helped families conquer just about every behavior, including stealing.

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