Caregivers and parents can really struggle to know what to do when children steal. Dealing with stealing can be particularly difficult for parents and caregivers of foster and adoptive children. These caregivers and parents have given the children a new, safe place to live. The children have everything they need and yet, the children still steal. Why? Learning the motivating factors behind the behavior can go a long way in helping caregivers and parents make sense of stealing and respond to it in more compassionate ways.
Context does not make behaviors okay, but it does help make sense of them. Consider where foster and adoptive children come from.
- Did previous caregivers lie and steal?
- Did the children witness stealing in their communities?
- What types of media (audio, print, or visual) did the children consume?
- What did the child’s predominant culture teach about stealing?
Prevalence of stealing within a family or community can lower defenses against it. Such prevalence can also make the behavior seem normal, or even glorify it. This does not make stealing, taking the belongings of others, okay but it does help caregivers and parents understand why their foster and adoptive children don’t understand. The children never had the co-regulation to teach them about this right and wrong.
Motivations for stealing can go deeper, though. Some children witnessed caregivers stealing to meet the family’s basic needs (Perez, n.d.). Some caregivers taught their children to steal to meet needs, or used the children’s stealing behaviors for their own gain. Children had to learn to shut down any inhibitions they had against stealing in order to please their caregiver and/or receive needed nurture. Maybe children were neglected and stealing was the only way to get basics like food and water for themselves (Leslie, 1998). Again, this does not make stealing right, but it gives insight into why children might steal.
Other children steal because of anxiety. Based on past experiences, children might not have had the experience of caregivers providing for them, and think they have to get everything for themselves (The Child Psychology Service, 2021). With brains pruned by trauma, children feel like they have to take what they need to survive right now, even if it might be available later (Perez, n.d.). Children might also find that stealing gives them a temporary feeling of released anxiety due to the brain chemicals produced by the action. For a moment, when they steal, they feel release, and it seems worth it. Children lack skills to deal with anxiety apart from stealing, and so they continue the behavior.
Stealing is considered a somewhat “expected” behavior as part of development. Stealing typically occurs between ages 3-8 (Johns Hopkins, n.d.). During this time, responsible adults help children learn what is theirs and not theirs. Stealing brings about “a teachable moment” where a caregiver can give an appropriate consequence for taking an item, teaching ownership, and encouraging moral development (Clark, 2020). Concerns come when older children steal, children of any age constantly steal, or the stealing is associated with other behavior problems (Johns Hopkins, n.d.). Children who experienced trauma, though, as often developed as far as their chronological age. Therefore they may engage in regressive behaviors, including stealing. Again, this does not make stealing okay, but it does provide insight into why older children might still engage in the behavior.
So what are foster/adoptive caregivers or parents to do? Their children are stealing. It makes sense, but the caregivers want the behavior to stop! The first step is for the caregivers to regulate themselves, to recognize the biological and neurological bases of the behavior and try to respond rather than react (Clark, 2020). The second step is for caregivers to help reduce anxiety for the child wherever possible. This looks like creating security, structure, and safety for the child; and practicing regulatory techniques regularly. For children able to understand their brain differences, psychoeducation can go a long way in helping children understand their struggles and work hard to make right choices. Third, caregivers and parents can eliminate shaming children from their behavior and practice re-dos, or restitution instead (Goldman, 2018; Leslie, 1998). For example, if the child takes a cookie before being offered one, caregivers can ask the child to place the cookie back on the tray and ask before taking. If the child has stolen something that needs to be replaced, the parent might engage the child in helping replace it in some way (maybe by spending allowance money, or by helping do extra chores to help “pay” for the item). This helps children understand the cost of stealing for other people.
Behaviors do not go away overnight, but they can diminish and then extinguish. Typically it takes 30-90 days per year of age for the child to begin to feel safe (Arizona Trauma Institute, 2018). This is a long time, but reveals the depths to which stealing behaviors may be entrenched.
Is stealing okay? No, but it makes sense why foster and adoptive children may engage in this behavior. These child need lots of loving care and attention to be able to address underlying needs and begin to address the behaviors. Finding a secure, stable home is the first step towards change, for the child, and for the behavior.
The Child Psychology Service (2021). Stealing. The Child Psychology Service CIC: A Social Enterprise. https://thechildpsychologyservice.co.uk/advice-strategy/stealing/
Clark, B. (2020). Responding to stealing by lowering anxiety. Adoptalk 3. Retrieved from https://www.nacac.org/resource/stealing/
Goldman, C. (2018, November 2). What to do when adoptees lie and steal. US News and World Report. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/for-parents/articles/2018-11-02/responding-with-empathy-and-care-when-adoptees-lie-and-steal
Johns Hopkins. (n.d.) Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/lying-and-stealing
Leslie, K. (1998, Fall). Response to Shane: Children who lie and steal. Fostering Perspectives (3)1. https://fosteringperspectives.org/fp_vol3no1/response_to_shane.htm
Perez, B. (n.d.). Stealing. Lifeline Children’s Services. https://lifelinechild.org/stealing/