Why Is My Child Stealing and What Should I Do About It?

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

Copyright 2000


"There are four types of theft offenders: Typical, Atypical, Mixed-Type and Kleptomaniacs. The Typical Theft Offender is your everyday garden variety thief. These thieves steal to get what they wants either for their own use or for resale. They have no remorse for the theft. They may consciously commit thefts out of revenge, anger, to gain an exhilarated high from doing an anti-societal act, or to have something to do. Left unchecked these thieves will continue to steal (Cupchik, 1997)."

"The Atypical Theft Offender steals but is ashamed and has remorse for having done the theft. The things stolen usually have little value and have no significance to the thief. They don't understand why they are stealing. They feel they have no control and are frightened when these theft episodes happen. Usually these thieves are upstanding citizens living exemplary lives. Many are professionals with a lot to loose if caught (Cupchik, 1997)."

"A major criterion for diagnosing kleptomania is that the theft is not done for revenge or out of anger. It has been discovered that when many Atypical Theft Offenders have a theft episode, they are experiencing major stress in their lives. This is due to an unfair loss of a significant other, a job, health, or a relationship from either in the present or past. Atypical Theft Offenders will continue to offend until they understand the underlying stress factor and deal healthfully with the loss (Cupchik, 1997)."

"It is hypothesized that subconsciously Atypical Theft Offenders are very angry and steal because they want someone else to feel the unfair loss that they are feeling. Since this is a subconscious act in partnership with deep subconscious anger (Cupchik,1997)."

"Atypical Theft Offenders need the help of a psychologist or psychiatrists to help them recognize the relationship between the theft, anger, and loss (Cupchik, 1997)."

"Many Atypical Theft Offenders are erroneously diagnosed and treated as kleptomaniacs. Consequently they continue to offend because they have not come to grips with the true problem (Cupchik, 1997)."

"It is estimated that kleptomaniacs account for only 2%-3% of all assessed thieves. Once diagnosed, kleptomaniacs are not help accountable for their thefts. They also do not know why they steal, but it not due to revenge or anger and is not in response to a delusion or a hallucination. The theft tends to be a compulsive act. The true kleptomaniac also needs the help of a professional to help them (Cupchik,1997)."

"Kleptomania is defined as a recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal objects that are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value. There is an increasing sense of tension immediately before committing the theft and pleasure, gratification, or relief at the time of committing the theft (Cupchik, 1997)."

"A study of twenty diagnosed kleptomaniacs revealed that all twenty were suffering from other psychiatric disorders. Seventeen of these has four or more. Antidepressant drugs were administered to eighteen, ten improved. All had had a major mood disorder and major mood disorders were common among their family members. Psychotherapy was also tried but it did not help them (Cupchik,1997)."

"The study suggests that kleptomania, is like eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder, in that they are biologically related to depression (Cupchik, 1997)."

"The Mixed-Type Theft Offender has characteristics of the Typical and Atypical Theft Offender. One of the most important things is to determine is why the theft is taking place. What need is the theft fulfilling. Find the need then provide the means to fulfill it (Typical Theft Offender) or learn to healthfully deal with it (Atypical Theft Offender)(Cupchik, 1997)."

"The Typical Theft Offender accounts for the major share of thefts. An overview of the major reasons why the Typical Theft Offender were listed in the first paragraph of this article. Reasons for the thefts are discussed in more detail below so that you can determine the reason, and thereby provide a means to fulfill the need (Cupchik, 1997)."

The child believes s/he is unloved, or unwanted.

The child believes at least in his/her own mind that s/he is not getting his/her fair share of attention.

The child is jealous of a sibling's things.

The child is jealous of his/her sibling's relationship with you.

The child is an outsider amongst his/her siblings.

The child has become the family scapegoat.

The child may be stealing to gain peer acceptance.

The child has wants and desires but no way to earn money to get them in a legal manner.

The child may do it to get his/her fighting parents united in his behalf, even if the child experiences punishment.

The child may be stealing items and money for drugs and/or alcohol.

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The child doesn't understand that it is wrong to steal.

The child has borrowed excessively and now steals to be able to pay of his/her debts.

The child steals for the adrenaline rush s/he gets from stealing.

Setting up Restitution

In all cases, restitution needs to take place and a personal apologize to the victim of the theft.

If you are making the child return stolen items from a store, do not be surprised that the store manager just brushes it off. It may be far more beneficial if you call the store manager in advance and tell him what you would like to happen when you bring the child in with the stolen goods.

Talk about the how the victim feels. If it is a store, talk about how shoplifting cause you to pay more for the stolen merchandise. Point out that the child is hurting not only self, but everyone else s/he cares about!

Do not lend the child money to make restitution. S/He must negotiate a payment plan in which s/he cant pay off the debt.

If the child borrows it from parents s/he feel less of an obligation to pay it off or to pay it in a timely manner.

Younger children can earn money from parents for additional chores around the home

Never should restitution money or fines be given the child to get him/her off the hook.

Let the child experience the consequences, instead of you feeling sad for him/her and getting him/her off, no matter how much pleading, bawling, and/or name-calling calling goes on.

The child may say that you don't love him/her, but if you take this opportunity away from him/her then you are opening the door for additional trouble to occur because the child knows they can get you to bail them out. Acting in this manner shows that you truly do not love the child and or yourself.

For the Typical Theft Offender

The child should know in advance what the consequences you will levee if s/he chooses to repeat the offense!

If this is a repeat offense, this behavior will merit punishment. This could be taking away something the child values such as loss of one of these:

freedom - ground the child from going places

privileges - telephone, radio, television, electricity, driving, telephone, & computer games

free time - free time is replaced with structures time where the child is to accomplish difficult, distasteful, or unpleasant chores.

If the child chooses to repeat the offense a third or more times the punishment may result in loss of freedom, privileges, and free time for and extended time.

The Wrap-Up

Remember, no matter what the cause of the thefts, it cannot be tolerated. Figure out the reason for the thefts even if it takes professional help. Restitution must take place always! If the thefts continue through a conscience decision on the part of the child then a the child looses a freedom that s/he treasures. If it still continues then a total loss of freedoms results. If is remains unchecked the child looses his/her right to remain in the home so that the family may retain their rights of freedom and safety.


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Cupchik, PhD., W. (1997). Why honest people shoplift or commit other acts of theft: Assessment and treatment of "Atypical Theft Offenders." Toronto, Canada: Tagami Communications/University of Toronto Press Distribution Center.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter, December 1991. on McElroy, S. L., Pope Jr., H. G., Hudson, J. I., et al. Kleptomania: a report of 20 cases. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148:652-657 (May 1991).

Annette Nay, Ph.D.

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