What to do when your child lies and steals

14 July 2014

It’s every parent’s nightmare. How do you handle the situation when you realise your child is lying and stealing? Our expert gives advice.

It’s every parent’s nightmare. How do you handle the situation when you realise your child is lying and stealing? Our expert gives advice.

A mother wrote to us on Facebook asking for help for her 15-year-old son whom she’s realised has been stealing things.

She says: “I need urgent help. I’m a mother of three children – two sons and a daughter. My oldest has a big problem. He’s about to turn 15 and his behaviour is totally out of control. He’s stealing and he’s lying about it. He’s had epileptic fits since he was a young boy, but it was only in Grade 6 that we realised he’d started taking other children’s things. Since then it’s only got worse. If I ask him why he does it, he just says he doesn’t know. Is this ADD [attention deficit disorder] or a result of the epileptic fits? The worst is that the other day when we were visiting his grandmother he climbed over the wall, broke into the neighbours’ house and stole a laptop and cellphone. I’m trying to help him but I don’t know if it’s making a difference. Please help.”

Marisa van Niekerk is an educational psychologist practising in Pretoria, Centurion and Midrand and says it’s not uncommon for some children to go through phases of stealing. “There are various reasons for this. Very young children do it because they don’t realise it belongs to someone else or that something in a shop needs to be paid for first. Older children have different reasons. It could be because of peer pressure, a cry for help or just for fun – some people get a ‘kick’ or sense of excitement out of doing something wrong.”

Van Niekerk explains that if this behaviour doesn’t stop at some point, it can indicate deeper psychological problems. In this specific case, she recommends the mother consult a clinical or educational psychologist and that the child is assessed. “It seems his stealing and lying has been going on for many years and it’s taking on larger dimensions now.  It’s important that a psychologist investigates his stealing and lying from all points of view, like his academic abilities and performance, self-image, emotional development (how he deals with his emotions), circumstances at home and who his friends are and what they do together. A combination of these issues could lead to behavioural problems like stealing and lying.”

She says epileptic seizures aren’t something that will lead to stealing, but the combination of the symptoms and the way it was handled or not handled by parents and family could affect his behaviour. “Seeing a therapist will also help the parents to get the support they need and help them to address the issues while still offering him support.”

Van Niekerk says some of the things therapy could help a troubled teen with are learning to appreciate themself, learning to acknowledge the positive things they do and finding something positive that also makes them excited.

What parents can do

Van Niekerk says parents who are concerned about their children’s behaviour should pay special attention to their own actions.

Make it clear stealing and lying aren’t just wrong, but illegal and that you could be arrested and prosecuted for them.

  • Set a good example. Don’t commit other, seemingly smaller, crimes by for example taking home stationery from work, talking on your cellphone while driving or telling white lies. It will make it much more difficult to explain why what your child is doing is wrong.
  • Place emphasis on trust. Let them understand what it means, and explain to them that trust is broken if they take something that doesn’t belong to them.
  • Don’t entertain justifications of the stealing, such as “the other person has more” or “the shop has enough stuff; they won’t miss this”.
  • Don’t use fear and guilt to prevent the stealing or lying.
  • Be strict about rules and stay calm when enforcing them.
  • Never try to protect your child by pretending they didn’t steal something or “covering” for them.
  • Let them take personal responsibility for their actions by taking the things back and apologising. They should pay for things they can’t take back.
  • Ask your child how they’d feel if someone took something from them.

-Dalena Theron

Find Love!