My Child Has Sticky Fingers: The ins and Outs

Sticky Fingers Alert!

Children steal things all the time. It’s normal and natural and is bound to happen at some point. Just make sure you are prepared for when it does happen. Reaction is key.

Stealing is not entirely impulsive, however. “Five- and 6-year-olds are outgrowing the belief that adults can read their mind, and they’re exploring the idea that there are secrets they can keep to themselves,” says developmental psychologist Gil Noam, Ed.D., a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “A 3-year-old may take a toy from his cousin’s house with-out giving it a second thought, but a 5- or 6-year-old has usually done some planning,” he says. “There’s the anticipation, the hiding, and then justifying having the new object at home.”

Another reason children decide to steal is so that they can fit in with their peers. Some children may feel self-conscious of the things they don’t have and the things that others do, that they have the urge to take what isn’t theirs.

Stealing, strangely enough, is part of the developmental stage and a learning opportunity – understanding what’s right versus what’s wrong.

If you suspect your child may be stealing, do the following:

  • Talk to your child. Access the situation.
  • Pass neutral comments if you find something you know doesn’t belong to your child “I wonder where this ball came from” “Gee, I don’t remember buying this”.
  • Help your child deal with the impulse “You could have asked me to buy this glitter pen for you. We could have discussed it rather than you taking it” “Lets start saving money so that you don’t feel like you need to steal it because you would be able to afford it”


There is a fine line between innocent stealing and boarder line criminal. Repetitive stealing is often a cry for help and your child may require professional help.

Remember to always access your child’s living situation, physical state and emotional wellbeing.

The following could be causing your little human to act out and pinch things:

  • Divorce
  • Seperation
  • Death
  • Trauma
  • Bullying
  • Abuse
  • You going back to a full-time job
  • The arrival of a new sibling

Check in with your little people. Chat with them, play with them, read to them. Engage, engage, engage! Spot those warning signs.

Why Does My Child Steal?

  • Sometimes teenagers just want what someone else has, and don’t think before they take it. They may have developed some sense of entitlement – often because they haven’t had the opportunity to contribute in their household or work for money.
  • Many teenagers steal because they feel they are unloved or that they don’t belong. They think they have a right to hurt other people because they feel hurt inside. They are trying to make up for the pain they feel in what can be seen as an attempt to ‘get even’, so it is important to make sure that if a child is stealing you go to extra lengths to help them feel loved, important and wanted.
  • It could be because of jealousy – if they feel you favour one child over another. It is useful to listen attentively to the emotions behind what they are saying and discuss their feelings in a positive non-judgemental way.
  • It may be because they want to pay for gifts for friends or family to feel accepted.
  • Or they could be doing it out of a sense of danger or bravado in front of peers, or perhaps encouraged to steal by peers, or wanting to fit in with a group or gang where stealing is normal.
  • It could be to fund a habit such as gambling, on-line gaming or funding cigarettes or alcohol. Sadly parents now need to consider carefully if their teenagers could be stealing money for drugs. (Please don’t rule this out as a possibility despite your initial doubts. Just be vigilant.)
  • It could be out of a fear of dependency – they take what they need so they will not feel dependent on anyone or obliged to anyone –particularly if there is resentment or bad feeling towards the people they rely on.
  • Or they may just feel jealous that other kids have what they want.
  • It may be that they are unable to trust others or form close relationships.
  • Or it could be due to demands from a bully for money or items.

What You Can Do:

1. When you discover something is missing, if you can, collect your evidence. Get your investigators hat on – find out which child is spending more than usual. It is best if a conversation about stealing is done when there is no doubt.

2. When confronted with the evidence, if your child insists they got the money elsewhere tell them you will make inquiries in a couple of hours to check their story, to give them a chance to think about it and come clean

Have a serious talk with them – let them know what they have done is wrong but that you will always love them.

3. Ask them why they are stealing. What is it that they wanted? Why did they feel they had to do it?

4. Then say ‘Now I need to explain my side…’

  • Stealing is wrong –there is always a victim.
  • As a parent it is your job to instil morals and take the high ground. Be a hard arse if you need to (only when given attitude). If you let this go, you will be failing as a parent to stop them stealing. If this is the first time you will deal with it at home, but next time there will be much harsher consequences. Come in hot. Make a scene if you have to but they need to understand the severity of the situation.
  • Stealing is illegal. It is a crime and the child could get a criminal record which will affect their chances of future employment and their reputation. In addition to this, your child would have to appear at various court dates, experience high levels of stress and would need the best legal team to get them out the shit. It’s a very costly, time consuming and emotionally draining process.
  • It is difficult to shake off the label of ‘thief’ once caught. If their friends and school find out it will damage their reputation and you don’t want that for your child. This could very well open the door to bullying.
  • The habit of stealing is hard to break and often extends outside the home, where police are much more likely to get involved.
  • We can’t have everything we want. We need to work for it.
  • Tell them what it feels like to be stolen from: Hurt, let-down, shocked, disbelieving, sad, upset, disrespected, privacy invaded, devastated.
  • Tell them what it feels like not to trust your child: expected better, feeling more distant, distrusting in other things, worried for the future, like a bad parent, wanting to search their room when items go missing, stressed, pained, not sure what to do, how to stop them & how to help them learn, but knowing if you fail what the consequences could be.
  • Explain that trust is the basis of all relationships. We need to trust people to feel close to them. When trust is broken it is hard to re-establish.
  • Tell them what you will do the next time valuables or money go missing such as visit to the Police or local Youth Offending Team (This would be for a chat, but don’t threaten anything you won’t follow through on)
  • Make it clear that it goes against your family values and the expectations of your community.
  • Tell them how disappointed you are in their behaviour. Tell them they have let themselves down and they have let you down.
  • Avoid predicting that their future is in prison or referring to a child as a thief.
  • Explain how important it is that they never steal again.
  • Tell them that somehow they must pay back ALL the money that was stolen and what the consequences will now be


Try not to stress too much if your child is going through this phase. It is a natural human reaction to pinch things when we are younger but be sure to get that under control sooner rather than later to avoid serious stealing issues.

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