Why do teenagers steal?

  • Sometimes they just want what someone else has got, and don’t think before they take it. They may have developed some sense of entitlement – often because they have not had the opportunity to contribute in their household or work for money.
  • Many teenagers steal because they feel they are unloved or that they don’t belong. They think they have a right to hurt other people because they feel hurt inside. They are trying to make up for the pain they feel in what can be seen as an attempt to ‘get even’, so it is important to make sure that if a child is stealing you go to extra lengths to help them feel loved, important and wanted.
  • It could be because of jealousy – if they feel you favour one child over another. It is useful to listen attentively to the emotions behind what they are saying and discuss their feelings in a positive non-judgemental way.
  • It may be because they want to pay for gifts for friends or family to feel accepted
  • Or they could be doing it out of a sense of danger or bravado in front of peers, or perhaps encouraged to steal by peers, or wanting to fit in with a group or gang where stealing is normal.
  • It could be to fund a habit such as gambling, on-line gaming or funding cigarettes or alcohol. Sadly parents now need to consider carefully if their teenagers could be stealing money for drugs. (Please don’t rule this out as a possibility despite your initial doubts. Just be vigilant.)
  • It could be out of a fear of dependency – they take what they need so they will not feel dependent on anyone or obliged to anyone –particularly if there is resentment or bad feeling towards the people they rely on.
  • Or they may just feel jealous that other kids have what they want
  • It may be that they are unable to trust others or form close relationships
  • Or it could be due to demands from a bully for money or items
What you can do about it?

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Consider all the following possibilities and choose which ones might work for you.

1. When you discover something is missing, if you can, collect your evidence. Get your investigators hat on – find out which child is spending more than usual. It is best if a conversation about stealing is done when there is no doubt.

2. When confronted with the evidence, if your child insists they got the money elsewhere tell them you will make inquiries in a couple of hours to check their story, to give them a chance to think about it and come clean

Have a serious talk with them.

3. Ask them why they are stealing. What is it that they wanted?

4. Then say ‘Now I need to explain my side…’

  • Stealing is wrong –there is always a victim.
  • As a parent, it is your job to instil morals. If you let this go, you will be failing as a parent to stop them from stealing. If this is the first time you will deal with it at home, but next time there will be much harsher consequences.
  • Stealing is illegal. It is a crime and the child could get a criminal record which will affect their chances of future employment and their reputation.
  • It is difficult to shake off the label of ‘thief’ once caught. If their friends and school find out it will damage their reputation and you don’t want that for your child.
  • The habit of stealing is hard to break and often extends outside the home, where police are much more likely to get involved.
  • We can’t have everything we want. We need to work for it.
  • Tell them what it feels like to be stolen from Hurt, let-down, shocked, disbelieving, sad, upset, disrespected, privacy invaded, devastated
  • Tell them what it feels like not to trust your child: expected better, feeling more distant, distrusting in other things, worried for the future, like a bad parent, wanting to search their room when items go missing, stressed, pained, not sure what to do, how to stop them & how to help them learn, but knowing if you fail what the consequences could be.
  • Explain that trust is the basis of all relationships. We need to trust people to feel close to them. When trust is broken it is hard to re-establish.
  • Tell them what you will do the next time valuables or money go missing such as a visit to the Police or local Youth Offending Team (This would be for a chat, but don’t threaten anything you won’t follow through on)
  • Make it clear that it goes against your family values and the expectations of your community
  • Tell them how disappointed you are in their behaviour. Tell them they have let themselves down and they have let you down.
  • Avoid predicting that their future is in prison or referring to a child as a thief.
  • Explain how important it is that they never steal again
  • Tell them that somehow they must pay back ALL the money that was stolen and what the consequences will now be (choose your own or pick one or more from the list below)

Consequences for stealing
For the first-ever episode of stealing:

5. Insist they return the stolen object (or money) & apologise.

6 Find a suitable way to make amends for the distress caused.

7. Check your child is able to accept what they did was wrong. Help them find ways to make amends then ask them what they have learned from the mistake. Can they now forgive themselves? Then put the incident behind them and know they have learned from it.

8. Be sure that any consequences you plan fit the crime. For instance, taking biscuits or borrowing something is not the same as stealing money from your purse or wallet.

9. If the child cannot return what was stolen take the equivalent money they have stolen out of pocket money or savings. Make sure they don’t benefit from the theft in any way.

10. Do jobs to pay for the missing money.

11. Grounding – no sleepovers, going out with friends, having friends round or days out.

12. Have consequences such as banning  TV, phone or computer time– or their exclusion from a family treat.

13. Remove personal possessions such as their mobile, computer, TV or games console for a fixed period of time.

14. Tell your child what additional consequences have been earned if they lied about the theft.

When stealing has been a problem more than once:

15. Talk to the police & ask for their advice. The police can talk to your child about stealing. This will be preferable to being arrested later on for shoplifting.

16. Maybe visit a young offender institution or youth detention centre

17. Encourage them to get a job to pay the money back such as a paper round /cleaning out stables / doing odd jobs for people/babysitting.

18. If serious amounts of money have gone missing one powerful consequence could be to take everything from your child’s room except their mattress and seven outfits –one for each day of the week. Then for your child to sell their things on e-bay –starting with their most valuable possessions until they have enough money to give back what they stole.

19. Does your child need counselling or to talk to someone they trust?

20. Ask your child how they feel you could re-establish a more trusting relationship.

21. Explain that if the police are ever involved they will take the full consequences. If your warning does not stop them, they still have a choice to listen or not. You can’t control their behaviour.

22. Only tell people who really need to know – you don’t want your child’s reputation damaged. However, if the property of relatives start going missing, there will be no alternative but to tell them.

23. Once the incident is over and they have done what you decided was appropriate the theft should not be referred to again. Don’t give your child a label which they may live up to! Give them a clean slate but no uncertainty of what would happen if they ever steal anything again. But let them know that you do not expect them to steal again and that you trust that they will remember their values.

If you have a few children and no one owns up

24. If you are not sure who has stolen it, offer a way to return the money – Put an envelope on the table or on your bed and go out for a fixed length of time. Explain that if the money is not in there by the time you return you will call the police.

25. If the money is returned explain that next time money or valuables go missing you will call the police straight away.

26. Have a talk with all the children about stealing using the guidelines above.

If the money is not returned

27. Serve only value food for a week. Explain the money was for food, and why everyone will have to eat only the cheapest meals until the money is returned.

28. Cancel family treats and special outings in the next week. Consider other consequences for everyone.

29. If other children’s possessions or money is also going missing consider putting locks on the children’s doors and your bedroom door or provide a locked space for their valuables in their rooms.

In the long term, to reduce the likelihood of them stealing again

30. To encourage a sense of contribution in the home agree with your child which jobs they will do ‘for love’ and jobs where they can earn for what they want.

31. Encourage outside activities especially D of E, volunteering, scouts, sports or music – something good for their self-esteem.

32. Also, encourage them to mix with friends that you feel are good for them.  Allow these friends to your home and supply soft drinks, snacks and food to encourage the friendships. Be accepting of any friends you child wants to bring home, but insist that you are around when they have their friends round and engage with them. Make sure your child takes responsibility for their behaviour when in your home.

33. Explain that they can talk with you about what is going on and establish a way to make it safe – (where you won’t lose your temper), having a code word for when they need to have an important conversation with you sometimes helps.

34. Make sure you never act dishonestly yourself. Make a point of being honest when someone gives you the wrong change for instance or by handing in any money or objects you find.

35. Don’t leave money around or make it easy for a teen to have access to valuables / your things. Keep a proper account of your money, and keep it hidden.

36. Talk to your teen about money. Could they have pocket money (maybe linked to responsibilities in the home) or an allowance to pay for all their own essentials such as toiletries, clothing, travel and social events?

37. Regularly bring up and discuss stories you have heard from the news or TV programmes where stealing has been an issue.

38. Treat your children fairly. Don’t have favourites.

39. Help each of your children feel loved, important and accepted in the home. Make this a priority.

40. Make sure all your children know what the rules are regarding belongings and what the consequences will be for breaking the rule in advance, with the clear indication that you never want to use them.

41. Give your child or children the expectation that they are honest and trustworthy and that you expect them to respect other people’s possessions.

Still not sure what to do? Want private expert help?

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Contact Elizabeth

How To Confront Your Teenager About Stealing
How do you confront a child who you know has been stealing? What do you say?

  • How to confront your teenager about stealing
  • What to do if you have no proof?
  • What will happen if you let your child off too lightly?
  • What if you’re too severe?
  • What are the right consequences for stealing?
  • How can your teenager make amends?
  • How might your teenager react when you confront them?
  • How to prepare for the conversation.
  • How to get your teenager to admit to anything else they’ve stolen.
  • What if your teenager has been shoplifting?
  • How to more likely your teenage won’t steal again
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

Need help now? Ready to explore whether investing in some tailor-made parenting sessions would be right for you and your family? Book your FREE 20-minute call with Elizabeth here

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