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Dr. Magryta: Stealing

Stealing is not uncommon in young children and often increases in adolescence, to a parent’s chagrin. Is it the end of the world? In most cases the answer is clearly, no. The bigger question is when is it a real worry and what can we do about it as parents to help our kids grow into respectful and law abiding humans.

Stealing is wrong. This is plain and simple without need for debate. However, in the young child’s mind it is often a basic need of “I want” and generally not maliciously intended. Even teenagers often steal more to fit in than to be “bad.” Thinking in these terms allows us to keep it in perspective as we battle with our own emotions of parenting and failure.

Help to re-frame the issue as a hurtful event for the person that was stolen from, instead of focusing on the act and the behavior. Even people that have much are hurt by the act of being robbed. Stealing from a retail store also hurts the workers who get blamed for inventory loss, and we all eventually pay a little more for goods and services to make up for the lost items on the company’s balance sheet.

Stealing can betray someone’s trust if they are close to the perpetrator. Help your child or adolescent learn that betraying someone’s trust really sets them back in life and friendship. There also has to be a way for the child to earn the trust back. The lack of that ability will make them give up hope and likely worsen behavior. Remember that in the end, all children want to be loved by their parents. This is a basic need of the childhood psyche.

Consequences for abnormal behavior are necessary and can lead to the greatest successes when implemented appropriately, consistently and with lots of love (hard to do, but so worth it).

As the child ages, the consequences need to have more teeth to send a message of gravity. They need to feel a little suffering to understand the need for change in behavior.

Losing privileges like canceling social outings, losing screen/game time, losing communication via phones and time spent alone in one’s room without technology are great starting places.

When the behavior becomes repetitive, there is no remorse for the behavior or the theft goes beyond petty items, it is time to seek medical advice and enlist a psychological therapist. If this is not dealt with appropriately, the odds of serious adult issues and jail time climb greatly.

10 things to do to improve the issues of a child who steals:

1) Spend time with your child in play frequently to develop a bond that allows your parenting advice to have more weight. Teenagers are in special need of a parent’s time as they learn how to navigate life and their evolution into adults.

2) Separate serious theft from young and silly decisions. Try a loving discussion about why they did it vs immediately attacking the behavior. This is hard to do, but important.

3) Public apology and returning the stolen goods is paramount to setting the record right and asking forgiveness while allowing the child to own the poor choice.

4) Have a consequence that fits the crime and be consistent with its implementation. Consider community service at a neighbor’s house or local soup kitchen.

5) Frame the conversation in terms of hurting others so as to have more impact.

6) Discuss that people have a right to keep their property and that the law is clear on this topic.

7) Know what your children have in their possession. This will allow you to find stolen items and deal with the issue at that time.

8) Consider learning Love and Logic or the Incredible Years parenting programs to augment your skills.

9) Give them options for earning back your trust.

10) Love conquers all. Think with love first and punishment second.

Stealing is wrong, but but I believe in your kids,

Dr. M

Dr. Chris Magryta is a physician at Salisbury Pediatric Associates. Contact him at  newsletter@salisburypediatrics.com

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