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What to do when you catch your child stealing

(Photo provided)

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

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

Younger children under 4 may not understand that stealing is wrong — but by age 5 or 6, they understand what’s right and wrong, and it’s at this point that stealing is recognized by both child and parent as an unacceptable behavior.

Why do they do it?

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, so does their sense of self-control, and stealing will usually stop. Teens and preteens may do it out of peer pressure or as a type of rebelling, even when they know it is wrong. Other older children and teens may steal because they are seeking love and attention due to their feeling unloved or neglected by their parents. Of course, stealing is not the way to get their attention or to find the love that is missing in that teen’s life.

Destined for a life of crime?

It’s important that you don’t overreact, but 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 by taking something of theirs without asking or paying for it first.

¯ School-age children should be spoken to 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, then stricter consequences should be instituted. Having your teenager meet 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 juvenile detention centers 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 do it once, for reasons I have shared, and then with your help will stop. So continue to stress the values and ethics in your family that would teach your child or teen not to steal.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.

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