When Your Child Steals & How To Handle It

Stealing, it’s a fairly common behavior in young children, not all children mind you, but it’s not unheard of or completely unusual. And then your child does it and you have to temper your rage and handle the situation.

Well, that’s the situation I found myself in while we were on holiday!

It was one of those…. “the aliens made me do it” scenario’s!

We were staying with my parents while on holiday. The previous day, we’d had lunch with my cousin, her husband and their daughter. At the lunch my cousin had been telling me about her daughter’s great love of giraffes. So I’m standing in the bathroom, putting my make up on when Ava comes sauntering in and says:

“Look what I found in your work cupboard!”

(Just to clarify, my work cupboard, as she calls it, is a space in my bedroom dresser where I keep various props and paraphernalia that I use for blog and product photography.)

She takes her hand out from behind her back and uncurls her fingers and clutched there I find a really cute, tiny little fluffy giraffe. Now I what I have in my prop cupboard and I know this giraffe is not mine. Besides, we’re over 1 000km from home, in Cape Town, about 4 days into our holiday so how did this cute little giraffe only appear now.

I give her my sternest face? My are you freaking kidding me look! And ask her:

“Where did you get that because I know it’s not mine!”

“I found it in your cupboard!”

“No you didn’t! Where did you get it?”

“I just found it ok?”

“Don’t lie to me! I’m going to be even angrier because I know you are lying!”

“Ok! FINE! I took is from Sarah’s bedroom!”

Que the mortification!

She stole is from her cousin!

Why do kids steal?

  •  Poor impulse control, as I mentioned above.

  • To be cool and impress her friends.

  • When somebody else has a one-of-a-kind something she wants or needs.

  • To get back at somebody (stealing a bully’s lunch money).

  • When she wants or needs something, she doesn’t have enough money, and you can’t afford it either.

  • When she’s afraid to ask you for the money for this particular object (condoms, a bra), or feels too embarrassed to purchase it.

  • When she may not be able to legally purchase something (beer, cigarettes).

  • Because it’s fun; kids enjoy taking risks, and in a society that is careful to protect kids as much as possible, stealing provides a risky, thrill-provoking activity.

  • During times of stress. What else is going on in your child’s life?

I firmly believe she took the giraffe because of poor impulse control, which is completely normal (the impulse control part) for her age group. But still, I was mortified you guys! Mortified. 

So how did we handle it?

We sat her down and had a long talk with her. About how it’s stealing and it’s not ok. That we respect other people’s things and don’t take what doesn’t belong to us. I asked her how she would feel if the roles were reversed and someone had taken something precious that belonged to her? It was hard, I was really embarrassed and hurt. Does that even make sense? It hurt me to have this conversation with her.

She was sheepish and apologetic and then we had a discussion with her about what the suitable punishment should be. Walter and I agreed that making her openly and honestly give the giraffe back would be punishment enough and a lesson learned in the process. Over the next few days I helped coach her on what to say when she saw Sarah – that she was sorry, that she had taken Sarah’s giraffe without her permission, that she felt bad about it and that she wanted to be honest and open and give Sarah her giraffe back. She agreed to do it.

A week later, we were back at my cousins house. On the way there, I feel like the weight of what she’d done started to sink in. She told me that when she thought about seeing Sarah, she felt guilty and sad and that she was truly sorry for what she had done. When we arrived, she took the giraffe and presented it back to Sarah with her little practiced speech, with my help because she was quite anxious about it when face to face with her cousin. But she did it and I was proud of her for facing up to and honestly owning up to what she’d done.

How to handle your child stealing:

  • Use disapproval. Immediately make it clear that you don’t tolerate this behavior. No, it’s not okay.

  • Talk with your child. Try to determine why she’s stealing, what the motivation is, if this is a regular thing, if she’s done it before. Don’t grill her. Don’t berate, embarrass, scare, or ridicule your child, unless you want to end the conversation and gain no information at all.

  • Talk about values and ethics. Keep this part short, not a lecture, just a reminder.

  • Have the child make restitution, helping her if you need to. This means she needs to return the merchandise, or pay off damages.

  • Tell your child that you are watching her behavior, that she has lost some trust, and that she needs to re-earn it.

  • Assess the situation. Be honest with yourself. Is there a pattern here? If your kid is stealing frequently, or the stealing is combined with other misbehaviors, seek professional help.

It was a hard lesson for her and I think for us as her parents, but I think we handled it pretty well.

Has you child ever done something similar? How did you handle it? 


  • Heather

    July 25, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    I can hear the emotion behind this, even though you did all the right things, it is still hard. Not something I am looking forward to if it happens.

  • Cheryl Miller

    July 26, 2016 at 11:43 am

    My 6 year old daughter stole R50 from my purse, so she could buy sweets at the tuck shop at school. I only found out when I saw her with a R20 note and asked her where she got it from, we give her R10 pocket money so I knew she couldn’t have a R20 note from anywhere. Sheepishly she told me it was her change from the tuck shop, so I ask her to explain to me how she got R20 change from a R10 note. It eventually all came out and i think from my reaction she knew I was very cross about it. As a punishment she has to pay it all back to me, and I write it all down in a note book so she can see how she is doing at paying it off. So far she has given me back nearly R40. I think it is also teaching her a valuable lesson on the value of money. She also lost her TV time for a week.


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