Parents, here’s what to do when young children steal

Of course, if children steal, parents can be very concerned. They may wonder if they have taught their child properly, if it is just a phase or if they are getting their hands on a young offender.


  • Natalie Gateley

    Associate Professor and Researcher, Edith Cowan University

  • Shan Rogers

    Professor of Psychology, Edith Cowan University

But before parents panic, they should think about why their child took something that doesn’t belong to them.

First, it is important to take into account the age of the child.

When do children learn that stealing is wrong?

Very young children have no concept of ownership. If they see something that interests them, they’ll probably reach out and just take it.

Child experts believe that a sense of ownership begins at about two years of age, but a full understanding of other people’s property rights develops at three to five years of age.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises that ages three to five is an especially important time for parents to actively teach children about ownership and fairness. Model good behavior around respecting property, which means not bringing extra stationery home from work, or bragging about the cooked chicken on the supermarket cart hook you got away with without paying for it.

If they know it’s wrong, why are they doing it?

Motives to steal should be investigated and understood before deciding on course of action, as this is not necessarily a sign of moral failure.

Some young children with low impulse control might steal for instant gratification – especially items considered to be of low value. They may think it’s just a few lollipops, or a cookie or two, no one will notice.

Others find it hard to imagine that someone would be angry or disappointed if they stole someone else’s belongings.

Bored children may simply steal for a sense of excitement or to get attention.

Another important aspect is whether they steal alone or with peers. Children may steal as part of prank behavior as a result of peer pressure or to impress their friends.

Children who come from poor backgrounds may steal to get items they cannot afford. The item may be highly prized within their peer group, or it may be the latest fad item everyone in the group has.

Some children may steal to get the attention of adults or peers. Or there may be emotional or psychological issues and the child is using stealing as a coping method.

Stealing may indicate that a child is struggling with something deeper and needs help addressing the root cause of his behavior. Parents, carers and educators should approach the situation with empathy and understanding and work with the child to find more constructive ways to deal with their emotions and needs.

My child stole something. What should I do?

Here are some steps parents and guardians can take:

1. Keep calm and avoid overreacting. Approach the situation calmly. Shouting loudly or punishing children makes them more likely to steal again in the future.

2. Talk to the child. Ask them why they stole and listen to their answer. Try to understand what motivated them to steal and address any underlying issues. Explain why stealing is wrong and what consequences it can have.

3. Say stealing is wrong. It is important to teach children the importance of honesty and trust. Explain how stealing can damage trust between people and damage relationships.

4. Remove the goods, if possible. Make sure they don’t profit from the theft or withhold goods. Sometimes parents decide not to return goods for fear of the consequences, but your child is not allowed to keep the goods.

5. Establish clear consequences. Make sure they understand that their actions have consequences. This may include returning the stolen item, apologizing to the person they stole from, and completing chores or community service to make amends.

6. Avoid scare tactics. Don’t threaten to tell the police or constantly label them as naughty, a thief or bad person. Once you’ve dealt with it, don’t bring it up again.

7. Monitor their behavior. Monitor your child’s behavior in the future to make sure they don’t steal again. Praise them when they make good choices and show honesty.

8. Seek professional help. If your child’s behavior persists or escalates, it may be necessary to seek professional help from a psychologist who specializes in working with children.

Remember that stealing is not necessarily a serious problem, but it should not be ignored. With the right approach and support, parents and carers can help their child develop a sense of ownership, understand the consequences of stealing and prevent future stealing.

The authors do not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that could benefit from this article, and have not disclosed relevant affiliations outside of their academic tenure.

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