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Loan, Loss or Theft? How to Recognize and Solve a Problem of a Child’s Theft

31.05.2019 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

“When our grandmother complained that the money in the wallet was missing, neither my husband nor I took her words seriously. We comforted her, saying that she had forgotten how much money was there, that the prices were rising so fast nowadays and it was hardly to notice how the money was spent. I was shocked when I once saw my son in the hallway with the grandmother’s purse in his hands. He looked confused and frightened when he realized that I caught him. In the first minutes I could not say a word. One thought was in my head: my child is lying to me and stealing money, lying and stealing…”

— Marina, mother of Sasha, 11

It is an unpleasant situation, isn’t it? But, unfortunately, sometimes parents are faced with such a reality: a child begins to steal. Theft is a typical form of deviant behavior in children and adolescents. This is a denial of norms of the society, which is expressed in taking or using valuables which do not belong to the child, without prior permission or notification of their owner.

Almost everyone has ever felt the urge to take something which did not belong to him/her. But not everyone indulged one’s desires and trespassed. And those, who has trespassed, felt shame and tried to hide any evidence of such actions. Or, on the contrary, they did not realize that they had done something illegal.It may happen that parents suspect theft where it doesn’t exist:

“I really liked the pocket watch, which my classmate Gena showed me during a break. We studied in the second grade. Previously, I have never seen such a wonderful thing: the watch was opened like a medallion, a dedicatory inscription was engraved inside, and its chain was beautiful and heavy. Gena said, that watch belonged to his grandfather, he gave it to him. And I could take it if I like it. Before that, we were not friends with Gena, my friends and I often made fun of him. I was very surprised why my parents did not believe that the watch was gifted to me. I remember, they then phoned Gena’s parents, took the watch from me and gave it back to them”.

— Elena, from childhood memories

How to prevent and correct child’s disrespectful behavior in relation to someone else’s property? When is taking things considered theft and you should ring the alarm? What to do if a teenager steals not only money from parents, but also other people’s things? Let us study the issues which are acute for parents in this article.


  1. Why do children steal? Understanding the reasons of the problem
  2. Child’s theft in low-income and wealthy families. Types of child’s theft
  3. How not to behave with a child who steals money
  4. What to do if a child continues to lie and steal
  5. Prevention: how to prevent adolescent theft at home
  6. Solving the problem by the 7Spsy behavior modification technique

Why do children steal? Understanding the reasons of the problem

Why do children steal

“When Makar was 4 years old, he had a younger sister. Around the same time, I began to notice that he was bringing other children’s toys from the kindergarten. I think it was the beginning. He answered my questions that he had exchanged with a boy from his group. Then he stopped responding, ran away to his room. I was terrified when I realized that my child began to steal, did not know what to do if one of the parents would begin to react. I went through all his toys and found a dozen of other children’s cars, motorcycles, robots. I was ready to burn with shame when gave the whole bunch of “trophies” to the teacher”.

— Marina, mother of Makar, 5

Psychologists identify three main reasons of child’s theft:

  • a strong desire to own the thing you like, despite the voice of conscience;
  • psychological dissatisfaction, reaction to traumatic circumstances of life;
  • insufficiently developed moral ideas, lack of will.

People also distinguish the motivation to desire to steal depending on age. Understanding of “one’s own” and “another’s” is formed in the minds of children of 3 years old. However, at such an early age, a child still can’t evaluate his/her actions – he/she simply takes what he/she likes. It is too early to call such a behavior “theft”. However, when a child is 4-5 years old, he/she already understands the thing he/she likes does not belong to him/her, taking someone else’s is not good, but so far he/she cannot control own desires and passions.

We will teach a negative attitude to theft

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At the age of 6–7, a child begins to feel the need for socialization, wants to increase the level of self-esteem and recognition from peers. He/she solves this problem through the appropriation of material things. Moreover, the price of the thing doesn’t matter for a child, but the thing’s value matters. He/she is aware of the possible consequences, but the goal becomes more important than the fear of punishment. If a child cannot refuse own “I want!” at the age of 8–10 years, it indicates a lack of will to work with it. [1]

You should pay close attention to the problem if a child is older than 10 years old and steals money and other valuables. There is already a deliberate appropriation of another’s property, which can be associated with theft “in an adult way”. And, most likely, a specialist here will be required. This can be either a personal consultation with a child psychologist, or remote psychological assistance. For example, when taking a course of the 7Spsy behavior modification technique.

Child’s theft in low-income and wealthy families. Types of child’s theft

Child’s theft

There is an opinion that children from poor families are more prone to theft, since they are more acutely aware of a lack of material values. However, there are also cases where a child steals money from parents and relatives in rich families. The key for solving this paradox lies in the attitude to money.

Children of low-income parents are brought up with a saying “a penny saves a penny”, they are aware of the high risk of getting caught and the severity of possible consequences. A child from a poor family often takes something he likes in a shop without paying, rather than steals money at home.

The money question is not so acute in the families with a good income. The reason here why a child steals money from parents lies in the lack of understanding of the efforts made to provide a stable income. He/she takes money from parents or guests without any shame. A family for a long time may not notice the loss of values, and a child, feeling parental love, favor and impunity, continues to steal already systematically.

Let’s consider the types of child’s theft and their prevalence in children of low-income and wealthy families:

Types of child’s theft



Low-income familiesWealthy Families
Positive intent theftA child wants to give a gift to someone. Not having own money, he/she “borrowed” it from parents to buy the necessary thing. Or he/she takes valuables from home (case from Elena’s story). Desire to please overpowers fear of consequences.sometimessometimes
Impulsive theftA child has a strong desire to possess a certain thing. There is already an understanding of the severity of the action, but there is no control over it. He/she is unable to fight a desire, and decides to steal.oftenoften
Theft as a protestA child uses theft as a way to get attention. The fear of punishment is not important – the reaction is important. This behavior is common for adolescent children, but is sometimes observed among preschool children. The reason may be an acute shock: moving to other place, divorce of parents or an appearance of a younger child (an example from Alina’s story).sometimessometimes
Theft as a sense of permissivenessA child is spoiled by attention and is sure that parents will justify any of his/her actions, even lies and theft. Having done a bad deed and not having received a negative reaction, he/she becomes stronger in the sensation of impunity and repeats it.seldomoften
Theft as self-affirmationA teenager with low self-esteem is famous for bragging about stolen things. He/she wants to get social significance, providing for himself/herself some “cult” things: a smartphone, a vape, etc.oftenseldom
Collective theft “for the company”In the process of socialization, a child gets into a bad company, where theft is perceived as a norm, and responsibility is felt only partly – as if shared equally among all members of the group.oftensometimes
ExtortionActing alone or in a company, adolescents demand money from younger ones, threatening, bullying, and sometimes even beating. Besides the fact that extortion itself is theft, it provokes the theft by a child who has become the object of extortion.oftensometimes

How not to behave with a child who steals money

“Better I have no son at all than a son being a thief!”

(from the story by N. N. Nosov “Cucumbers”)

First of all, remember: the principle of the presumption of innocence applies not only in court, but also in home education. A child should not be blamed without a good reason – until a child is caught red-handed. But even when the guilt is obvious, and you are forced to have a strict educational conversation, try to refrain from using the words “crime”, “theft”, “thief”. Do not threaten to call the police, do not compare a child with negative characters, do not make a conversation with witnesses. And do not recall similar situations of the past that a child has already fully regretted.

Psychologist M.M. Kravtsova gives advice, what parents should do if a child steals money: “Be extremely careful, be sensitive, remember that this is not a recidivist thief, but your son or daughter. You will spoil the child’s life, deprive him or her of the right to a good attitude of others, and self-confidence if you hurry and express your indignity”. [2]

What to do if a child continues to lie and steal

When approaching the question of how to wean a child from stealing, think about the following: has a child experienced a deep emotional stress in recent times? Perhaps he/she was wounded by events occurred in the family. Speak heart to heart with your child, make it clear that he/she is loved and has the right to support.

We believe that this information is read by honest and conscious parents who do not give clear examples for children to follow in actions which would be opposite to the norms of behavior in society. But, perhaps, with some actions you gave a child the idea that taking someone else’s thing is good? For example, you expressed a delight to find a banknote accidentally on the street and boasted of things purchased on it? You should give an objective assessment of such situations and say you regret how frivolous you were.

But what if the establishment of such cause and effect connection does not solve a problem, and a child again steals money at home?

  1. Explain the action from a position of empathy. Tell a child how a person can feel, who has lost the needful thing through someone else’s fault. Ask what emotions a child would experience if he/she were in that person’s place.
  2. Support a child’s self-esteem. Tell him/her about a case from your childhood when you, too, succumbed to the temptation, what emotions you experienced from the consequences of your act, and how you made the decision never repeat such mistakes. Say that it happens with almost everyone, but it is important what decision a person makes and how he/she behaves in the future. Make it clear what decision will become a reason to be self-proud and will cause respect from others.
  3. Compensate for the effects of an emotional trauma. Whatever the reason is for theft, parents can take actions to make up for the deficiency felt by a child: to be more attentive and affectionate, suggest how to improve relations at school, consider the possibility of acquiring the desired thing, or offer alternatives.
  4. Suggest a path to correction. Instead of blaming your child, tell him/her how a child can compensate for the damage: return the toy to a friend and offer to choose one of his own as a gift, help grandmother in household chores, take part in a charity event. If a child feels the consequences of his/her act, then this will become a memorable lesson for him/her. It is necessary to explain a child that although it is difficult to plead guilty and return the stolen item, it is necessary – strong people do this. You can support a child with your presence, and when done, be sure to praise a child. So a child will connect this act with a sense of guilt and shame, understand how people around treat that.
    Since this situation has occurred in your home, do not let it be the reason for devastating consequences for you and your child, try to take advantage of it. Remember that this is just a child and he/she is learning to live, and your goal is to help him/her become a strong, confident person.

Prevention: how to prevent adolescent theft at home

to prevent adolescent theft
Correction of child’s theft is a “challenging task” for parents. It is always better to take preventative measures than to correct the consequences.

From a very young age, it should be explained with examples from fairy tales and cartoons that there is “good” and “bad”.

At the primary school age try to form an understanding of law and order, to foster a sense of responsibility. A child must have some household chores to carry out systematically: take out the trash, keep his/her room in order, prepare clothes and schoolbag.

Set the amount that you are willing to give to your child as pocket money, and do it regularly. This will help foster financial literacy and understanding the value of money. Give him/her small amounts regularly.

As an exception, serious misconduct may be sanctioned. But be careful with restrictions: a child must understand the commensurability of restrictions with the severity of violation. Otherwise, sanctions can provoke a child to lie and take money secretly.

And do not leave money in a visible place, don’t give a cause for temptation.

Solving the problem by the 7Spsy behavior modification technique

The question “How to wean a child from stealing money?” is especially difficult to solve in adolescence. In a situation where a teenager steals money, it is important to prevent this from becoming a stable line of behavior. Mistakes in education can become irreparable. If you have concerns, you should contact specialists as soon as possible to adjust the pathological model of behavior.

The 7Spsy behavior modification technique is aimed at this. This is a patented method of behavior psychology based on the theories of I.P. Pavlov, A.A. Ukhtomsky, B.F. Skinner.

We will teach a negative attitude to theft

Make for consultation WATCH VIDEO

The 7Spsy behavior modification technique courses are held remotely with children from 7 years old. A child is engaged independently and individually. The course begins with a diagnosis of the problem and takes from 2 to 6 weeks. Work by this method helps identify the attitudes that led to neglecting laws and regulations, and change them to positive attitudes. As a result, a teenager adopts a healthy behavior model: learns to respect property rights, follow the rule of law and social behavior. Throughout the course, a psychologist will support a child and answer questions through a convenient communication channel: by phone, e-mail or online chat.
If you notice that your child steals, do not beat his/her hands, but help correctly assess his/her action and get rid of the desire to steal.


  1. Davydova E.Kh. Istoki detskogo domashnego vorovstva // Detskii prakticheskii psikholog. Iiul, 1995 g.
  2. Lugovskaia A., Kravtsova M. M., Sheinina O. V. Rebenok bez problem! Reshebnik dlia roditelei. Eksmo, 2008 g.