I’m working with a 16-year-old female who has been placed out of her home and living with extended family members. She lived a life of chronic minor neglect with a passive mother and strict step-father. Along with lying, she steals on a frequent basis and will hoard anything from Qtips to gum wrappers. Her foster parents and I are working on building a strong healthy relationship, but the current consequences are not making a connection to the child and the stealing continues. She steals anything from books to underwear - not shoplifting, but from family members and friends. She is currently in a half-day alternative educational setting where she is thriving. There has also been some positive growth as she is learning how to use the public transportation system and she will occasionally be honest and admit her mistakes.
I realize that there is a deep-seated attachment issue with the child and her primary caregiver, and youth work is practiced in the milieu of making those simple human connections in the everydayness of life, but does anyone have any suggestions or reading recommendations to address the child’s behavior?
What is stealing? Is it a way of claiming what you have never been given or of symbolising what you have never had and what you know you need? Children are often inveterate souvenir collectors. When I lived in as a residential worker things were often taken from my room.
Although this was often regarded by others as stealing and an almighty fuss made about it a lot of these objects were trivial in themselves but not as symbols of something else [call them 'transitional objects' if you like]. There was one child who constantly took my soap, not when it was new and fresh but only after I had used it. I was working with Donald Winnicott at the time and he assured me that the child was seeking an equally close relationship to me and that the used soap symbolised this. Made a lot of sense at the time. Your child is taking from people close and related. Does this have meaning other than stealing? One Valentine's day a child took one of my, regrettably few, cards. When I asked her why she said, 'I had to steal your heart because you won't give it to me.' Out of the mouths...
I'm interested in your phrase 'the current consequences are not making a connection to the child and the stealing continues'. No police involvement?? That showing some discretion... What consequences does she face... and If we ask her about the stealing how can we do it so she cannot feel shamed, as that will lead to lying (I do it).
What does the stealing mean to her? What does she get out of it? Once we know that, we can help her replace it with something less provocative.
Hope that helps
You said she doesn't shoplift? What does she do if she wants something outside of her home? Ask? Or maybe she hasn't been caught yet? Or maybe she only wants what she thinks makes her "family" happy?
Some interesting replies to your query.
I too am wondering about "current consequences" not working.
When I ask people about the consequences of stealing, most say something about getting arrested or going to jail. We tend to 'feel' we have to apply consequences for misbehavior. Applying consequences is such a part of our culture. And then we have behaviorism telling us to be consistent with discipline, meaning punishment.
But behavioral psychology tells us pretty clearly that punishment does not work, except maybe to suppress behavior a little. So our feelings (mine too) tell us that applying consequences is necessary. But our thoughts should tell us differently.
What about the other consequences of stealing? Getting something you want. Harming somone else who loses something they cherish. Costing them money to replace it. Affecting how they feel about you. Affecting how you feel about yourself.
These consequences may teach more. They are real and they are consistent. Some of them even happen when she doesn't get caught. A restorative approach relies more on these consequences than on punishment.
Private property is one of the dominant values in our culture. Someone I know often said, "There's nothing I hate worse than a thief or a liar." Where I live, it's even acceptable to kill someone to protect your property.
But then there's the hoarding thing. Makes me wonder if she's ever owned anything that she valued or cherished. Pretty tough to teach someone about private property as a social value if they've never really had anything all to themselves, something they were in full control of. Did she ever own anything she valued? Did she have to share her stuff with siblings who destroyed it? Did people take her things away from her to "discipline" her. Doesn't teach children about respecting the property of others when we don't respect their rights to their stuff and take their stuff from them, even for a time, to teach them a lesson. (But it's better than smacking--at least that's what some experts tell parents.) And so I'm wondering if she respects her own property and takes care of it.
Children learn values like respecting property from people who are important to them. Relationship first. Teaching second. But can the family work on the relationship if the stealing is a problem? And how important to her is a relationship with this family? Or does she just want to go back home to the home she knows?
Anyway. You've sure got a challenge. And so does she.
Best wishes to you all.
Hi guys, blown away by David Pithers' posting. Not only does he name drop Winnicott, he relates one of the most poignant snap shots of residential care I have heard in a long time.
I connected to the concept of 'head, hands and heart' with which it can be argued we meet the needs of those close to us. I have been involved in helping my daughter settle into her first home. I help with my head regarding explaining the mortgage, undertaking some pieces of the negotiation, with my hands in clearing out the basement, driving to the DIY store and most importantly with my heart as I listen to her concerns, express my pride and love for her. As a residential worker I was pretty good at the head and hands but was short changing the youth when it came to the heart.
I can now recognise the many ways in which those kids tried to claim my heart and I feel humbled. Recently I have worked with young people in a non social care setting and I feel I can let my heart talk more freely.
It is most liberating. I just regret that I didn't respond more congruently way back then.