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Child Behavior Problems: Children who Steal

Children steal for a variety of reasons.

Some steal for comfort, others to impress a group of friends, get back at their parents, or to get the things they want. Sometimes they steal just because it is exciting. Probably as many as one in four children have deliberately stolen something at some time. Most, of course, never do it again. But those who do, do so for one reason: it works. Whatever their core need: attention, money, or excitement, the stealing provides it for them. So how do you stop it? Obviously, if you can help them to find another way to meet their needs, then they won’t have to continue with the stealing.

Along with this, your main emphasis needs to be on promoting honesty. Use everyday events, such as stories from television or school, as a starting point for talking about honesty, integrity, and family morals.

At the same time, model it yourself. What do you do when you find a wallet in the street? Or when you are given too much change in a store? Your children will be watching you, and learning.

Then watch your children. Not to catch them out, but to catch them being good. Reward and praise the little acts of honesty that you see. All of this promotes a culture of honesty in the home.

If you do catch them stealing, stay calm. Losing your temper will not help, and may even act as a reward for them. Secondly, do not tempt them to lie their way out of it.

Encourage your child to do the right thing. This means putting it right. Not just paying back what was stolen, but also paying compensation for the inconvenience and disrespect caused by the theft. Ideally, the child should do this himself, probably with your support. Here are some suggestions:

Return the goods to the manager of the shop, school child, or teacher, along with some compensation and an apology.

If taken from a stranger, confiscate the goods (perhaps hand them in at the police station) and impose a fine.

If the goods have already be sold and spent, he may have to sell some of his possessions (perhaps to you) to pay for them and the fine. Make sure what he sells is gone for good.

Arrange for some “community service” for the victim or, if unknown, for the family or neighbors.

Taking the stolen property back is his opportunity to do the right thing. If refuses, you then have no alternative but to impose an even higher penalty. The message must always be that doing the honest thing, even if it is after the event, is still the best policy.

Avoid a long grounding sentence. Jail does not reform hardened criminals, and grounding will probably not reform your own little angel.

Finally, once it is over, get over it. Get back into reward mode, look for the things your child is doing right, not wrong, and work hard at reinforcing honesty. It is the stealing that is the enemy, not your child.

Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents. He can be contacted through his website on Expert Parenting Advice.

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