MOST parents want their children to be perfect little princes and princesses — well mannered, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and certainly having values and morals. Unfortunately, regardless of the principles that parents try to engender, sometimes children adapt less than desirable habits — like stealing — which cause parents much grief.
Not to panic though, Psychologist Dr Pearnel Bell said that while some children with sticky fingers have a disorder, most children just need to be guided.
“Children can steal for any number of reasons, and the first thing that you want to do is to get the child to talk. You want to make sure that your anger about the child's actions does not cause you to embarrass, scare or ridicule the child because he or she may refuse to share information with you out of fear of what could come next. Chances are you can help your child by simply listening,” Dr Bell explained.
Before a parent can help their child they must first know and understand why the child is stealing; that way they can address the root cause of the problem.
“The child may not want to steal but does it because of the attention that comes with it. While stealing may be sign of an emotional disturbance, a child, for example, might be stealing to gain something like love. The child might be feeling lack of love and steals to compensate for those feelings of lack of love. If attention is given to the child the stealing will stop. So first understanding the reason for their actions could save you a lot of trouble and future embarrassing situations,” Dr Bell reasoned.
The next step Dr Bell said that you may want to take with your child, especially in the case of a child who walks around believing that the world belongs to him/her, is to talk appropriate boundaries.
“Children, because they are allowed to use and touch and take things at home, sometimes believe that is how the entire world operates. But especially if they have siblings you can begin to teach and to explain from there that some things belong to others and they have exclusive rights to them and if you try to conceal it or pretend it is your own that behaviour will not be tolerated,” Dr Bell explained.
While most children will take something not belonging to them at least once in their life, it is important that as parents you make sure that this is not repeated or encouraged. Dr Bell said that there are a number of ways this can be achieved including:
1. Set rules against taking anything that does not belong to them
In addition to telling your child not to take things that belong to others, even at home, you also want to tell them not to take things from people's houses, the park, school or any other place unless it is given to them. Dr Bell said that parents should also be vigilant and investigate anything that they did not buy themselves.
2. Let them know there are consequences for their actions
For every action there is a reaction and if you want your children to let go of a bad habit they just need to know there are consequences. First, the child should know that you don't approve of their actions and they should be made to take the items back. In some cases the child may have to replace the item stolen, for example, if they broke it. The child should be the one to replace it. You can give them a loan so that you can replace the person's property immediately but the child, in the end, will foot the bill whether through paid chores, deductions from allowance, or bought from their savings. The child should be encouraged to apologise to the person who they stole from.
3. Don't call the child a thief
It's tempting to call the child a thief especially if the child is a repeat offender, but labelling can cause more harm than good. In addition, you don't want to keep bringing up the child's past offences because this can lead them down the same path if you continue to dwell on it even when they have changed.
4. Parents should teach empathy
It's easy for children to want to enjoy other people's property but they often fail to think about how the person who they stole the item from feels. As a parent, you need to ask how the child would feel if someone stole something from them. If you feel the child could do with less, show your child how it feels to have something they really like snatched away.
5. Praise honesty
If you realise a change in behaviour, for example, the child finds something belonging to others and takes it to you or another adult present, then you should also point out that you approve of their actions. Reward the child if you want to, but more importantly, encourage the child to act similarly in future.
Dr Bell said that especially if it's an older child and he or she steals repeatedly, shows little or no remorse and the actions are coupled with other things such as bad behaviour, then this could be sign of a mental disorder. She explained that a psychological assessment will be needed to diagnose, but professional help must be sought to deal with the issue.