As you pull the car away from a play date, you catch a glimpse in the rear view mirror of your little darling pulling a toy out of her pocket that does not belong to her. You ask her where she got it, and she quickly shoves the treasure into her pocket and denies knowing that the item ever existed. There are few more shocking, embarrassing, fear inducing and anger inspiring parental moments than the situation described above.
Nearly every parent has had this experience with at least one of their children. The way that the situation is addressed will determine the likelihood of a repeat performance. Just because your child stole something, it does not mean that they are going to become the world’s best cat burglar. They are stealing for a reasons. Determining why will help you decide how to prevent the problem.
No matter the reason, there are three things that you should never do if you catch your child stealing.
Even if the item was a small one, it is absolutely critical for the theft to be addressed immediately and corrected. Turn around and return immediately to the scene of the crime. Take your child (don’t do this for them) to return the stolen object to the owner. If your child stole from a store, make sure that they return the item to the store manager. If they have consumed part of the item or it is broken or lost, make a plan to repay what was taken.
Openly dismissing or denying the behavior will send your child the message that what they did was acceptable. Making excuses for your child will also be damaging to their understanding of the seriousness of the situation. Parents must be united in their response to a stealing behavior. If parents are inconsistent with their reactions (one makes the child return the item and the other does not or is extremely punitive), the child does not receive the message that her behavior will not be tolerated.
3. React in anger
While you may be very angry and disappointed in your child’s behavior, it is important to calmly address their behavior. Ask questions in order to understand the motivator and get a grasp on your child’s thought process. This allows you to determine why your child was stealing and how to prevent it in the future.
Express your disappointment in their behavior and emphasize the expectation that you have for their future behavior. Turn this situation into a teaching moment that your child will remember. When your child has stolen something, the more memorable lesson doesn't come from parental fury, but from the realization that they have let you down. Overeacting to the behavior can actually facilitate the stealing and can cause your child to repeat the behavior.
A. Lynn Scoresby, founder and president of My Family Track , First Answers , and Achievement Synchrony , and has been a marriage and family psychologist for more than 35 years. He has published more than 20 books and training programs.