Dr. Ruth Peters explains why some children steal and offers advice on how to prevent future offenses. Pressure to fit in can lead kids down some dangerous paths including shoplifting. Clinical psychologist Dr. Ruth Peters describes the signs parents should look for and explains how to stop the behavior before it starts.
There are an estimated 25 million shoplifters in our country (approximately 1 in 11 Americans), and about 25% of shoplifters apprehended are juveniles. Studies show that when kids steal from stores, about 70% of them do not plan their thefts in advance, but about 30% do. The vast majority of teens who steal say that they do not do it out of need or greed, but as a response to personal or social pressures in their life. Often they do it because they feel pressured by friends, want to fit in with a certain crowd by having the latest fashions and electronics, or steal merchandise on a dare.
If your child has stolen from a store and you’re trying to understand what would provoke your son or daughter to do so, consider the following. Many kids report that just the thrill of “getting away with it” can produce a feeling of being “high” and that this sensation is the reward, not necessarily the item stolen. Other adolescents steal in order to pay for substances such as cocaine or marijuana, but many do it to fit in with their crowd. The social pressure to lift a CD, shirt or magazine can be tremendous if your child is hanging around with kids who view stealing as a game, a dare, or a quick way to secure a new shirt or video game. In addition to the thrill of it, some teens steal things that they can’t afford or are not allowed to have, such as mature-rated CD’s and tapes, cosmetics, stylish clothes, cigarettes or consumer electronics.
What makes the teen or preteen so vulnerable to this temptation? Well, consider the poor impulse control of many adolescents – some haven’t faced real consequences for behaviors yet and feel that if they want it, then they should have it. Keeping up socially with peers who seem to have the most expensive, coolest clothes and electronics may appear to be an “instant fix” for the teen who just wants to fit in, or to stay in, a cutting edge crowd. In addition, shoplifters can also be those who are bored or depressed.
Experts at Shoplifters Anonymous suggest that teens steal because they:
It’s easy for shoplifting to become an addiction for some teens – the surge of adrenaline may temporarily relive underlying anxiety or depression, so shoplifting can become a habit that’s difficult to break.
So why does the teen take the chance? Studies suggest that adolescents who steal tend to believe that they won’t get caught. Therefore many are not concerned with how this illegal activity could affect their lives. Law enforcement takes shoplifting very seriously, and the possible outcomes can be:
When teens shoplift they often do so in packs, or with at least one friend who serves as look-out to alert others if an employee is watching. The social pressure to steal is magnified in a group, and it may be difficult for a youngster who has no intention of stealing to stand strong in the face of the social demands of the group.
So, what can you do to help prevent your child from stealing in the first place, or to resist theft if they find themselves at the mall with friends who plan to shoplift?
Discuss from an early age the concept of mine vs. yours (often tough for a three-year-old to grasp and to accept!). By the age of five or six years, children begin to internalize the morals of boundaries – what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine. However, if your young child does slip up and take something from school or a friend’s home, try to view your child’s stealing as a teachable moment – an opportunity to instruct right from wrong. Of course, have the child return the stolen object and offer an apology. In addition use this incident to confirm your family’s code of ethics. Say, “In our family we do not steal from others. It does not matter whether the object is expensive or cheap, or whether you are taking it from a store, school or a friend. We are proud of our honesty, we wouldn’t want anyone to steal from us, and we expect you to be honest and to not take things that aren’t yours.”
As your child grows, recognize her impulsive tendencies and need to fit in with the crowd and own the hottest toys or video games. When you hear “everyone has this game, and I don’t” comes up, offer reasonable, effective ways in which she can earn the money for the game so that she won’t even think about stealing it from a friend or a store. Consider initiating an allowance system or chore chart so that she can earn money to buy what she wants. Help her to learn how to save so that she can purchase what’s really important by budgeting her money, as well as learning to delay gratification.
And, watch your own behavior. If you are undercharged for an item at a store, not only bring it to the cashier’s attention, but also make your child aware of the situation. If you find a wallet or a purse, return it and let your child be a part of the process. Let her see how good it feels to do the right thing, even if it was tempting to keep the money for yourself. This is a great teachable moment – your child seeing that you chose to be honest when you could have paid less for an item goes a long way toward instilling your family’s code of ethics in a solid manner.
Middle and High School
Perhaps you’ve noticed that your tween or teen has acquired new clothing or an MP3 player and her explanation, “Marcy has two of these, she gave me the extra one” is not quite believable, you may be concerned that shoplifting has occurred. Or, you’ve overheard the guys talking about a close friend who has lifted a CD from the music store and is bragging about not having been caught. If you are concerned that your tween or teen has engaged in or is even considering shoplifting it’s time for a serious talk. Discuss the consequences that would occur if caught: immediately returning the items to the store, involvement with the legal system, curfew and restriction at home, grounding from friends who you feel may encourage stealing, and, most important – the diminution of trust. It’s important for parents to be able to rely upon children to act appropriately and responsibly, and this is a good time to discuss the consequences that could result from a breakdown in trust. A teen may not be able to get a driver’s license or take out the family car if they can’t be trusted. Sleepovers may be restricted and curfews may be lowered for an extended period of time if you cannot trust your child. Make it very clear to your kid, if you feel that shoplifting has occurred or may soon happen, that you will not tolerate stealing and clarify the penalties that would occur.
This may also be an excellent time to discuss the need to fit in with others and the power of peer pressure. Listen to your child and help him or her to understand that fitting in with a crowd is not worth taking risks, especially those involving health or illegal activities. Try to clarify what is important – being able to count on friends who can be trusted to be loyal, but also trusted to behave properly. This may mean that your child needs to settle for a less-than-cutting edge group to buddy up with, but in the long run this will provide longer, truer friendships and help your child move through adolescence in a safe and comfortable fashion.
Finally, consider that for many tweens and teens who shoplift that it’s often a one-time experience. Most kids who steal do so on a dare or under pressure from a particular kid or group of kids, and once your child has moved out of that crowd the notion of stealing may no longer be appealing. Your child is not necessarily a future felon, and has hopefully learned a lesson from being caught and having faced the consequences. Also, the guilt may begin to become significant, and they may choose a more honest path to follow in order to avoid the negative feelings and embarrassment.
16 September 2005