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Understanding Why Tweens and Teens Steal and How to Make it Stop

From the time children are as young as 3 or 4 years old, they learn the difference between mine and yours. They learn what items belong to them and what does not. As they learn the difference, they also learn not to take something that does not belong to them without consent.

By the time a child is an adolescent, they understand that taking something without asking is morally and ethically wrong. Unfortunately, tweens and teens like to test the boundaries of their independence. As such, they make cross boundaries and break rules, which may include stealing.

As a test of independence, stealing may start out as a casual habit. The behavior may eventually diminish, or it can become a problem. If stealing becomes a problem, you may have a hard time understanding why tweens and teens steal. Fortunately, understanding why it happens and what you can do about it can help you put an end to it.

The Reasons Behind the Behavior

When a child casually steals, it can be hard for the parents to determine how problematic the issue really is. For instance, your child may “borrow” something from you without asking. When you ask why, your child may say, “I forgot to ask permission,” or “I didn’t think you would be bothered by me using it for a little while.”

When you receive responses like that, it makes the act of taking without permission seem innocent. However, you should make it clear to your child that there are consequences for those actions so that it does not develop into a larger issue.

If, however, your teen or tween sneaks around behind your back to take things, you need to understand why. Sometimes the answer is as simple as them wanting something that belongs to someone else. Other times, it is a deeper issue. Deeper issues that may entice a child to steal include:

  • Feeling unloved
  • Attention seeking
  • Jealousy
  • Self-entitlement
  • Funding a habit
  • Seeking out the adrenaline of doing something wrong or dangerous
  • Inability to afford to purchase the items his or herself
  • Peer pressure
  • Thinking they could give the items they steal to someone they love as a gift

There are many reasons why tweens and teens steal. Identifying what those reasons are can help you break the habit.

When Should You Worry About Kleptomania

Kleptomania occurs when a person has a compulsive and uncontrollable desire to steal. Stealing becomes habitual and problematic. Kleptomania typically develops around the tween and teen years.

Kleptomania can lead to a wealth of problems. It can destroy relationships between friends and family by diminishing trust. It can also lead to delinquency issues. For instance, when tweens and teens steal, they could find themselves in trouble with the law.

If your child steal habitually and is often in hot water with the law for doing so, you have a problem. You must address that problem as soon as possible so that it does not continue. If left untreated, the child can carry the habit into their adult years.

Keep in mind that kleptomania may the result of a mental health disorder. For example, stealing can help reduce feelings of anxiousness. Therefore, it might be a sign that your child suffers from anxiety. Your child may also suffer from depression and steal as a means of achieving emotional gratification and satisfaction.

If a tween or teen feels neglected or depressed, it can make them vulnerable to certain temptations, including stealing. While the behavior can be both damaging and concerning, there is hope. There are ways you can put an end to stealing and kleptomania.

Tips to Put a Stop to It

When tweens and teens steal, it can feel very frustrating. It may even feel hopeless, but with the following tips, you can get your child back on the right path.

  • Set Boundaries – Make sure you set clearly defined boundaries for your child. Your child must understand that if they cross the boundaries, there will be consequences for their actions.
  • Follow Through – If your child crosses boundaries by stealing, make sure you follow through with the consequences you set. If you decide to ground your child as a consequence, do so and hold do it for the duration of the grounding.
  • Speak Up – Do not ignore the problem. Instead, talk about it. You may feel angry and hurt, but avoidance or blowing up is not the answer. Instead, sit your child down and explain that you are disappointed by his or her actions and that it is unacceptable.
  • Listen – Encourage your child to explain why he or she steal and listen to the response. The response can help you determine if your child is feeling depressed, neglected, unloved, or anxious.
  • Seek Help – If your child displays signs of mental health disorders or kleptomania, seek appropriate professional help. You will need to address the mental health disorders that might be driving your child to steal.
  • Show Love – Physically punishing your child, belittling him or her, or even screaming and yelling will not work. Show love and support. Your child needs to know you care enough to help put an end to the bad behavior.

The tips above are all helpful, but make sure you also seek out the help of a therapist. A therapist can help you determine the root of the problem that drives your child to steal. Fortunately, a therapist can also provide ways to treat mental ailments that might drive tweens and teens to steal. Finally, a therapist can also help you find ways to put an end to stealing.

Monica Ramunda is a solution-focused therapist with an office located in Louisville, Colorado for in-office visits. With a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and more than 16 years experience in therapy and counseling, Monica works as both a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Registered Play Therapist (RPT) with adults and children respectively. Much of Monica’s success is based on her eclectic orientation and drawing on a wide range of different approaches and techniques all while remaining strongly grounded in the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Techniques (CBT).