Child Behavior: My child is a dirty, rotten thief!



Monthly columnist Paul Schwartz, Ph.D. discusses stealing in the February issue. Dr. Schwartz states that the reasons a child steals are as varied as children themselves, so sometimes the root cause is difficult to determine. Clinical research has determined that most children steal for one or more of the following reasons.

Stealing usually originates from three general sources:
  1. The child is attempting to satisfy a need, stealing as a symbolic replacement of parental love, attention, respect or affection.
  2. He has received some direct or indirect approval for stealing.
  3. He is in some way attempting to attack his parents by embarrassing them or forcing them to give him more attention.
More specific reasons for children stealing cited by professionals may include:
  • A child who feels she is not getting enough affection or attention from parents might accumulate a storehouse of "treasures" as a means of compensation for her sense of deprivation. Children who have an adequate level of attention or affection may be envious of another sibling's attention or the affection shown to a new baby, and openly steal to demand more attention from parents.


Does "time out" work?

  • A child might steal to "buy" friends, using what he has stolen to bribe other children into being with him.
  • This behavior may reflect some internal stress such as depression or a problem at home, at school or with friends. Stealing may be the only way the child has of calling out for help.
  • Stealing might be a means to try to bring parents together in a separation, divorce or in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship.
  • Stealing may be a reflection of lax moral standards regarding theft at home and he might be imitating what he sees and hears ? parents not providing a rigid standard regarding what's right or wrong, or talking about cheating someone out of something or taking something that's not theirs.


Is your child being bullied?


  • A child may also not have her property rights respected at home. If a child's toys and clothes are taken without permission by other family members she may feel that at school she can take other children's pencils and crayons and classroom supplies without feeling guilty.
  • Children may also have selected poor role models ? seen a friend, brother or sister steal and has identified with that person and steals to gain their approval.
  • Another reason may be that the child has a low frustration tolerance and has great difficulty controlling their impulses when tempted.
  • Sometimes kids steal just because they want something.
For most elementary school-aged children stealing is a solitary activity. Peer influence such as daring or going along with the group is a strong influence on stealing during adolescence when it often becomes a group activity.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Chairperson of the Division of Social Sciences at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY.