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Stealing - when children steal

Steal; honest; right; wrong; peer; group; attention; pocket; money; problem; solving; child; teenager; behaviour. ;

Many parents are very worried about stealing.

  • Sometimes children steal because they haven't yet learned that taking other people's things is wrong (after all, adults take children's things all the time).
  • Some children steal because they are upset or worried about something.

Helping children who steal means understanding why it is happening, as well as knowing some ways to help them learn to be honest.


Why children steal

Learning about right and wrong

  • Children under three do not understand about right and wrong so if they take something it is not stealing.
    • Parents can start teaching about this, eg you can say "That belongs to Peter, I’ll find you something different to play with" or, for older children "Let's ask Peter if you can have a turn".
    • Similarly, young children also 'lie' because they do not understand right and wrong. See the topic 'Lies and fibs'.
  • In early primary school many children take others' erasers or pencils or take coins from their mothers’ purse.
    • They have do not yet really understand about right and wrong (although they are learning).
    • If they take something it is an opportunity to teach, eg "That belongs to Maria, she will be sad that she has lost it. Let’s give it back and then you can ask if she will lend it to you".
    • It is not helpful to leave money around when you have children of this age.
  • Under seven years stealing is sometimes part of a learning about "me" and "mine". Children may still see what belongs to family and close friends as the same as being theirs. As they learn more about owning and sharing things they will learn to ask and not take something that belongs to someone else. Parents need to tell them:
    • what belongs to everyone in the family that they can take without asking,
    • what belongs to each child or what belongs to parents that they must ask for before taking.
  • By nine or ten children have usually learned about right and wrong and if they steal it is for other reasons.
  • Children who are developing more slowly may take longer than others to learn about right and wrong.
  • In some families and cultures everything is shared by everyone so stealing does not have the same meaning.

Why children or young people steal


Some children know what is right and wrong but still steal. This is because something is going wrong in their lives and they need your help to sort it out.

They might steal -

  • to impress friends - especially if they feel left out. They may steal to be able to give things to other children to try and buy friendship
  • because they have no pocket money or spending money and other children have
  • because they want to do what their friends tell them to do - for example their group might dare them to steal
  • from unhappiness or feeling unloved. Sometimes children or young people who feel very unhappy steal only from a parent
  • because they need attention - stealing usually gets lots of attention
  • because they feel they don’t get their fair share
  • from anger - to get back at someone
  • from being in an environment where there is not an understanding that stealing is wrong.

What parents can do

  • Don’t react too quickly if you find your child has stolen. Give yourself time to think about it first so you can talk to the child calmly.
  • Try to find the cause and fix it.
  • Teach and show the things you want your children to learn, eg why it is important to respect others’ belongings.
    • Make sure that your children do not see you do things like avoiding paying fares for example.
    • Children learn much more from what you do than from what you say.
  • Perhaps you could use the topic Stealing - 'borrowing' without permission on the Kid's Health section of this website to talk with your child about stealing.
  • Give children and young people opportunities to learn to be responsible with money, eg some pocket money to manage.
  • Support the child or young person in returning or paying back what she has taken without making this too dramatic.
  • Teach problem solving if it is needed to help with other problems.
  • If pocket money is "docked" as a punishment, make sure the child or young person still has some money left to spend.
  • Give the child or young person some chances to succeed, eg get something from the shop and bring you the change.
  • Teach children why it is important to respect others, and show respect for the child.

Do not label the children or young people as thieves, or discuss the problem with other adults in front of them.

Note: If a child or young person goes on stealing and does not respond to these suggestions, get some help from a professional counsellor.

While many young children steal a few times, some children have serious behaviour problems including stealing a lot. Have a look at Conduct disorders for more about really difficult behaviour.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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