If you discover sweets and toys that you didn’t pay for in your little one’s pockets, don’t panic. Thankfully, it’s not a reflection of your parenting skills, and your child is not destined for a life of crime; many children steal at some point or another. That being said, it is important that you stop the behaviour and teach them that stealing is wrong.
Here’s what you need to know about children stealing, and how to make it to stop.
Why Do Children Steal?
Most children don’t understand the concept of ownership before four or five years old, and most children don’t have the impulse control to resist picking up something that belongs to someone else until about the same age. Children at nursery school aren’t being malicious when they take something that’s not theirs — they truly don’t know any better.
However, when primary school aged children steal, there may be more at play behind their misbehaviour. These children steal principally due to neurological or emotional reasons. Emotional issues signal a child who longs for something and believes that it is not available to them through straightforward means. Stealing that is accompanied by lying and deliberate planning is more likely to be emotionally based. If your six-year-old (or older) child steals, this may be a sign of ADHD, so talk to your paediatrician to explore if this or another impulse control disorder is impacting your child.
How to Stop Your Child Stealing
Addressing the behaviour reinforces the socially acceptable ways to obtain things, and teaches respect for others. To curb such behaviour, start with a gentle but clear and direct conversation that lets the child know that they may not take items that do not belong to them.
Be matter-of-fact while disciplining, but avoid shaming your child. Do not scold them in front of others. Insist that the child restore what was taken. Give them support, but make sure they do enough of the work themselves to feel they’ve ‘owned’ the situation.
It’s important to get to the root of this misbehaviour before your child’s guilt pushes them into more sneaking, hiding and lying to cover it. Here are some tips for stopping this type of behaviour if you discover that your child steals:
- Ask Questions: If you see new things and don’t know where they came from, ask your child about them.
- Check Pockets Frequently: Also check any other hiding spots you think your child may be using.
- Reduce Temptations: Keep children in the trolley while shopping, and don’t leave treats or money around.
- Replace Items: If stolen food has been eaten or a toy is no longer fit to return, ask them to come up with a plan to replace it.
- Have Them Immediately Return Any Found Items: Even if it means a trip back to the shops, have your child return stolen objects and apologise to the item’s owner.
If you know this is a frequent issue for your child, alert other carers and let them know how you’d prefer they discipline your tot. It’s important that carers stay calm and don’t lecture or punish the child — shaming often makes the behaviour worse. Carers should insist that all items are returned right away, no matter how small. Saying, “Oh, just let them keep it”, doesn’t help, so make sure everyone who tends to your toddler knows the appropriate way to handle this delicate situation.