Help! My Child is Stealing!

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First, let me say that your book Positive Discipline has been immensely helpful. I read it when my son was five (he's ten now) and I buy a copy for all the new parents I know ( along with the "Read-Aloud Handbook" by Jim Trelease). So thank for writing the book!

My son gets up before me in the morning and gets himself ready for school. We've been having a problem with him taking things that don't belong to him. We've found some of our belongings (watches, pocket knives, comic books) in his backpack.

I've asked him to stop many times but he doesn't. As for the pocket knives he said he wanted to carry one because I did. I stopped carrying mine and left out where he could see it and now I no longer carried one. However, I still don't know what to do with him about the other things he takes. This has been going on for at least a year.

Please help.


Following is an excerpt from our book Positive Discipline A to Z I hope you find it helpful:

My Child is Stealing

"Money has been disappearing from my purse and from the kids' piggy banks. My twelve-year-old daughter insists she hasn't taken it, but I notice she is buying lipstick, nail polish, and treats for her friends that she couldn't possibly afford from her allowance."

Most children will steal something at least once (probably most of our readers did too when they were children). When they do, most parents overreact. In their panic, parents often accuse a child of being a thief or a liar. Parents often take extreme measures like spanking, grounding, and other punitive solutions, so their children don't grow up to be thieves. Judging and punishing kids only makes the situation worse. Any parental intervention that is punitive and deals only with the behavior, and not the underlying problem, makes the situation worse.


  1. If something has been stolen, focus on a plan for replacing the item or money rather than on pointing fingers or calling names. Tell your child that the stolen article must be replaced, and you need her help in figuring out a plan for replacing it. If necessary, advance her the money to replace it. Work out a payment plan she can handle and deduct it from her allowance each week. Keep a payment record, so she can see how she is doing.
  2. Give children a chance to replace a stolen item and save face by saying, "I'm not concerned with who took the item, just that it be returned. I trust that sometime during the next hour the item will be put back where it belongs with no questions asked."
  3. When you know your child has stolen something, don't try to trap her by asking, "Did you steal this?" Tell her, "Honey, I know you stole this item. I did that once when I was little. I felt scared and guilty. How did you feel when you did this?" Continue with more what and how questions in a nonthreatening tone: "Have you ever thought about how the store owner might feel when things are stolen? How many items do you think store owners have to sell before they make enough money to pay their employees and rent, and still have enough left over for their needs? What could you do to help?" Many children have not thought about these questions, and you can help them become concerned for other people.
  4. Support your child in returning stolen goods to the store. Instead of being punitive, show compassion. Tell your child, "I know this can be scary and embarrassing, but that is what we have to experience sometimes to correct a mistake. Store owners usually appreciate it very much when children are willing to admit they made a mistake and try to make it right."
  5. If toys appear that you know belong to a friend of your child's, simply say, "I'm sure Billy must be missing this. Let's call him so he knows it's safe and take it back as soon as we have time."
  6. If you suspect your child is stealing to support a drug habit, get professional help. This is too hard to deal with alone.

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Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Many children steal because they believe they are unloved and don't belong. They think they have the night to hurt others since no one cares about them, and this hurts. It is called a "revenge cycle." Therefore, it is important to find ways to let children know they are loved. Separate the deed from the doer and show love while working out a plan to fix the problem.
  2. Often children steal because it is the only way they have to get what they want. Make sure your children have allowances that are realistic to cover their expenses while still fitting into the family budget. (Also, see Materialism.)
  3. Sometimes stealing occurs because money is laying out and is too tempting. Keep your money and valuables out of sight. If you suspect one of your children is stealing from another, help the victim get a locked box for items she wishes to protect.
  4. Children may steal from a sibling because they are jealous. Ask your children whether perhaps they think you favor one sibling over another. Listen to their responses for clues as to whether you are on target. Tell them that feeling jealous is natural, and that you love them very much. Discuss what you find special about them and be sure it is positive and not critical.
  5. During another family meeting, help children "explore" the consequences of stealing before it happens. (If stealing has already occurred, be sure this conversation is friendly and generic instead of focused on an individual.) Do this by asking what, why, and how questions: "Why do you think someone might steal? What are the consequences of stealing? What do we need to do in our family so we can all feel trust and safety?"
  6. Convey a message of unconditional love that does not include rescuing. In other words, let your children know what you will do instead of trying to control what they will do as in the following two examples: To a teenager who was stealing hubcaps and car parts to support his pot habit: "If you go to jail, I will love you and I will bring you cookies, but I will not bail you out." To a ten year old who broke a toy he "borrowed" from a friend: "I will help you figure out how to solve the problem, but I will not solve it for you."

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that they can save face and take care of the problem without losing the love and respect of their parents. Their financial needs are important and their parents can help them figure out ways to get what they want without stealing. They realize that they are not bad; they have just made a mistake that can be corrected.

Parenting Pointers

  1. Teens may steal for the thrill and for peer acceptance. It helps for them to get caught and be allowed to make restitution. Don't rescue them or bail them out when this happens. Otherwise, they may think they are invincible and that no one can stop them.
  2. Dealing with a child's hurt feelings and the pain of feeling that she doesn't belong will stop stealing quicker than punitive measures.

Booster Thoughts

Rebecca came to a counseling session extremely distraught. She suspected her daughter Julie was stealing makeup from her and money from her brother. When the school called and said that food items were missing from a fund-raiser, that was the final straw. Rebecca was ready to send her daughter to jail.

In the past, Rebecca had handled incidents of stealing by confronting her daughter. Julie had responded by insisting she was innocent, even when the money or items were in her room. Then Rebecca would get angry and call her a liar and ground her for a week.

Rebecca decided to handle things differently this time. She told Julie the school called to say she was short on her food deliveries for the fund-raiser. Rebecca said she would be happy to advance Julie the money needed to make up the difference and take it out of her allowance each week until the bill was repaid. Rebecca asked Julie if she could handle seventy-five cents or a dollar a week.

Julie was caught completely off guard. She started to make excuses and her mother said, "Honey, let's just figure out how to replace the items." Julie replied, "Okay, how about a dollar each week?"

Julie's mother continued, "Someone said they saw you sharing what they thought were the missing items with your friends."

Julie began to defend herself. In the past, Rebecca would tell her daughter she was lying and an ugly scene would follow. This time, Rebecca said instead, "Julie, I'm sure your friends like you for who you are, not for what you give them. If you would like to entertain your friends, why don't you invite them over to make cookies and play?"

Julie said, "Yeah, maybe," but she gave her mother a big hug as she left the room. Julie stopped stealing when she learned she would be held accountable and have to pay for what she stole. Her mother closed the escape route of defensiveness and power struggles when she showed unconditional love and stopped labeling and shaming Julie, while dealing directly with the problem. She had also dealt with underlying issues such as improving their relationship, boosting Julie's self-esteem, and the importance of focusing on solutions instead of blame.


Many more solutions are available in Positive Discipline A to Z.

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