why do children steal

Sometimes children steal after experiencing early-childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Stealing often goes hand in hand with lying and dishonesty. When a child is struggling with stealing, things might go missing and then magically reappear. Your purse may seem lighter. Siblings’ possessions may disappear from bedrooms. If a child is caught out, they will swear, “It wasn’t me!”

Reasons why children steal

There are many possible reasons why children steal. Without the right guidance and nurturing in early childhood, children may find it difficult to empathise with others. As a result, recognising immoral behaviour is challenging for them. Right and wrong may be unclear and so the child can turn to lies and deception.

After facing neglect or trauma, a child may steal to gain a sense of control over their surroundings. After having  experienced a lack of control in their early years, children may seek control to feel safe. Stealing can also be a survival mechanism. Children deprived of necessary items may turn to stealing to ensure that their basic needs are met.

Alternatively, a child may feel that stealing is justified because many things were taken from them. This may include possessions, family, safety, or stability. As a consequence, the child may view possessions as unimportant and feel that they have the right to steal what they wish.

Sometimes children steal because they enjoy the conflict. Focusing on an external problem can provide distance from their own problems. Stealing can fill emotional voids and become a source of comfort for some children. Further, children with trust issues may steal to elicit rejection from the adults in their lives. This is a defence mechanism to keep the relationship from growing too close, and to prevent the child being hurt again.

Developing a child’s conscience

There are a few things you can do to develop a child’s conscience and discourage stealing.

  • Firstly, set an example of honest behaviour. Bringing pens home from work could be interpreted as stealing… It’s hard to explain this grey area to a child when you want to model honesty and respect for others’ belongings.
  • Build respect for other family member’s possessions and make sure everyone is aware and accountable.
  • Talk through some of your own dilemmas about when you have been tempted to borrow things without asking. Explicitly teach the difference between borrowing with permission and taking without consent.
  • Use everyday and incidental opportunities to teach children right from wrong, and discuss possible feelings to help build empathy.

About the author – Tulin Kocacik

Tulin is a trained counsellor and certified play therapist, who has years of experience supporting vulnerable communities. Tulin has expertise working with families presenting complex and challenging needs, including trauma, attachment and mental health concerns. With a focus on building parent capacity and enhancing parent-child relationships, Tulin integrates her clinical knowledge and professional experiences to provide a sense of belonging to families who are needing additional support. Learn more about Tulin here.

Sometimes children steal after experiencing early-childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Stealing often goes hand in hand with lying and dishonesty. When a child is struggling with stealing, things might go missing and then magically reappear. Your purse may seem lighter. Siblings’ possessions may disappear from bedrooms. If a child is caught out, they will swear, “It wasn’t me!”

Reasons why children steal

There are many possible reasons why children steal. Without the right guidance and nurturing in early childhood, children may find it difficult to empathise with others. As a result, recognising immoral behaviour is challenging for them. Right and wrong may be unclear and so the child can turn to lies and deception.

After facing neglect or trauma, a child may steal to gain a sense of control over their surroundings. After having  experienced a lack of control in their early years, children may seek control to feel safe. Stealing can also be a survival mechanism. Children deprived of necessary items may turn to stealing to ensure that their basic needs are met.

Alternatively, a child may feel that stealing is justified because many things were taken from them. This may include possessions, family, safety, or stability. As a consequence, the child may view possessions as unimportant and feel that they have the right to steal what they wish.

Sometimes children steal because they enjoy the conflict. Focusing on an external problem can provide distance from their own problems. Stealing can fill emotional voids and become a source of comfort for some children. Further, children with trust issues may steal to elicit rejection from the adults in their lives. This is a defence mechanism to keep the relationship from growing too close, and to prevent the child being hurt again.

Developing a child’s conscience

There are a few things you can do to develop a child’s conscience and discourage stealing.

  • Firstly, set an example of honest behaviour. Bringing pens home from work could be interpreted as stealing… It’s hard to explain this grey area to a child when you want to model honesty and respect for others’ belongings.
  • Build respect for other family member’s possessions and make sure everyone is aware and accountable.
  • Talk through some of your own dilemmas about when you have been tempted to borrow things without asking. Explicitly teach the difference between borrowing with permission and taking without consent.
  • Use everyday and incidental opportunities to teach children right from wrong, and discuss possible feelings to help build empathy.

About the author – Tulin Kocacik

Tulin is a trained counsellor and certified play therapist, who has years of experience supporting vulnerable communities. Tulin has expertise working with families presenting complex and challenging needs, including trauma, attachment and mental health concerns. With a focus on building parent capacity and enhancing parent-child relationships, Tulin integrates her clinical knowledge and professional experiences to provide a sense of belonging to families who are needing additional support. Learn more about Tulin here.

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