Punishment for child who steals

I have a 12 year old who’s been compulsively stealing. Mostly dumb stuff - books, calculators, even pencils at school. Legos from her brother.

A couple of things have been more serious though. She stole money from the school store. Recently, she took my wife’s credit card to buy game access online.

We’ve tried some things that obviously haven’t worked (rewards for not stealing. Losing toys of hers for every time she steals. Getting the school involved so there’s a backpack inspection every day, and a locker inspection once a week), and we thought of taking her to the police station and having a cop tell her what happens to people who steal. We called, and for them to do that, they said we would have to file a police report.

Is that advisable? Should we file a police report against her (for using the credit card) so they’ll give her a stern talking to about the consequences of stealing?

Does anybody have any other methods or punishments that have worked for stopping stealing?

Chop off her hands?

Tough one.

I’ve never had to deal with this with my own offspring, but one thing that caught my eye is the word “compulsively”.

To me, this sounds like there’s something psychological at play, where no kind of punishment will help. Is there any chance of getting her to talk to a therapist of some sort?

Have you considered taking her for counseling? She’s old enough to know right from wrong and is habitually choosing wrong. Maybe she needs something more in the way of help?

Oh - and I’m disappointed the police won’t help out. Filing a police report is iffy - technically, it’s the credit card company who would be considered the plaintiff there, I think, and they might not be so willing to let it ride at “you’re grounded”.

The school’s guidance counselor might have some suggestions for how to proceed. Also, the school might have a police liaison of some sort who gets involved if “incidents” happen at the school (fights, assault etc.); that officer might be willing to have The Chat with your daughter.

What are some of her favorite things she likes to do?

Being on her computer; watching TV; dance lessons; spending time with friends???

Take away her access from the things she likes for several days/weeks.

Be very specific upfront with her as to what the consequences are again if she steals. And stick to the punishment, no matter how small the offense (don’t distinguish between stealing legos from her brother and stealing money from the school. Stealing is stealing.

Also be prepared with a 2 or 3 strikes your out penalty. So if she can tolerate losing her computer for 2 weeks and she steals a second time…it is gone for good.

You have to figure out what is going to motivate her to NOT do the bad behavior.

If she shoplifts from an establishment, an effective punishment (for me as a youngster at least) was to have to go back to the store to return the item, tell them I stole it, and apologize. So horrible and embarrassing - and effective.

Sounds like she’s mostly stealing from family or people at school. Any trouble w/ shoplifting outside of school?

I got caught stealing a bunch of chocolate bars and some money from a snack bar in grade 8. Had the cops called, they met with my parents and all that. I don’t really remember the punishment I received (I think it involved not hanging out with my accomplices) but the worst part about it for me was the shame I felt when confronted by my parents. I think you should let her know just how disappointed you are in her for this behaviour. A little guilt is a good thing for a kid to learn.

I wouldn’t bother with minor punishments like removing privileges. You don’t want her looking at the situation as a cost/benefit analysis (“If I steal this money, I’ll only get grounded for a week, and that’s only IF I get caught!”) My dad had basically told me just how rotten he thought thieves were, and that if I continued to steal then I’d be a thief.

I guess I should have provided that info - she already sees a behavioral therapist, and sees a school counselor at least once a week.

We’ve taken away privileges (her bedroom is basically just her bed and dresser anymore, and she’s losing computer privileges for this), but the behavior is not changing.

I don’t think she shoplifts when she’s with me. My wife says she used to with her, but hasn’t for a couple of years.

This was going to be my suggestion as well. Most kids at this age don’t like to have attention called to them, or at least not negative attention. I would enforce this confession/apology discipline each and every time, no matter how small the offense.

Shame used to be a pretty powerful motivator…don’t know if that’s as true today as it once was, though.

I don’t get “rewards for not stealing.” Praise for positive progress yes, but doing the right thing should be its own reward. You shouldn’t have to bribe a kid to do what’s right.

From what you describe, I don’t think piling on more punishments will help at this point. She’s twelve years old, she’s knows *intellectually *it’s wrong, and yet she’s continuing to do it anyway. She’s not stealing because it benefits her. She’s not stealing because she doesn’t know better. She’s stealing because the ACT of stealing is serving some emotional or psychological need for her – giving her a feeling of power, or control, or excitement, or being special, or something.

The stealing is a symptom. So don’t focus on treating the symptom. Focus on treating the root cause, whatever it is. I think you should have a long talk with her therapist to see if working together you can figure out what she’s getting out of this sort of misbehavior. And once you better understand the motivation behind it, you can better figure out how to demotivate it.

I’m not a parent so I don’t have much to offer in the discipline advice, but I wanted to weigh in on the police thing.

I would not file a police report except as an absolute desperate last resort.

I’m not sure where you are, so I don’t know how these things work in your area, but here the police won’t give kids ‘a talking to’ for two reasons - because they want kids to feel the police are people who can help in an emergency and not be a threat, and because if they did this they would spend all of their time telling off naughty children.

In the UK, if you file a crime report, the police are duty bound to investigate. That means your daughter would be arrested and put in a cell, have photos and fingerprints taken, and be interviewed on tape. You would not be able to be with her for this, because you are a prosecution witness. She would have to have another responsible adult with her, like an aunty or a social worker. This is frightening stuff for a kid.

If she admitted it, she would probably get a caution. That’s a criminal record. If she denies it, it could potentially go to trial and you could be called to give evidence against her. She would probably only get a mild sentence (I can’t remember if they can give community service to someone her age, but she might get a ‘rehabilitation order’). Yes this might straighten her out, but do you really want her to have that on her record?

Chances are a caution for theft at 12 won’t hold her back majorly in life, but if she goes into a competitive field of work and study…

(On a side note, the credit card thing is technically fraud and is a more serious crime, and as someone has said, it is technically a crime against the card company and might be taken out of your hands)
Obviously only you know whether it has got to this stage to warrant making a police report. I just want to make sure you know what that will involve. I work in that field and I would be extremely reluctant to do this.

Sorry to be all doom and gloom. I wish I had some constructive advice to give.

This is what I came in to say; she definitely knows better. There is likely some other underlying reason why she’s doing it and I’d think that at least some of those underlying reasons may only be further complicated by finding new ways to punish her, especially if it is an underlying issue like depression.

Talk to her and her therapist and aim at figuring out why she’s doing it; she probably doesn’t even really know why either. There’s probably other symptoms too that can leave clues. Is she having trouble making friends? Maybe she has friends but her relationships with them are unusual in some way. Is she struggling with school work? Does her stealing seem to correlated with certain things like stress, her emotional state, etc.? Does she exhibit any other unusual behaviors?

Sounds like she’s getting an awful lot of special attention for stealing – routine searches of her bags, school involvement, and now possibly the police? I’m sure that fits into whatever narrative she’s constructed for herself, the rebellious child that she perceives herself to be. With serious behavioral issues like this, we have scores and scores of research indicating that punitive measures do not work. Punishment only works if it is consistent, and frankly she probably has stolen a lot of things you don’t know about, consequence-free, which is why the punishment is not working.

You were on the right track rewarding her for not stealing – though instead of ‘‘not stealing’’ I would say focus on other good behaviors. The focus should not be on her stealing or not stealing. Right now it sounds like her entire life revolves around her stealing problem. Is it any surprise she keeps doing it? I think involving the police is a bad idea. More attention, more confirmation of her identity as a thief.

I would stick to dishing out negative consequences for her actions, but in addition to that, this girl needs positive feedback and influences and activities that have nothing to do with her stealing. Rather than giving her hours of attention every time she steals something, just inform her of the consequences, enforce them, and leave it at that. She also needs behavioral therapy – and I’m glad to hear that’s happening.

How long has this been going on? How long did you practice rewarding good behavior? How long have you practiced punishment? How long has she been in therapy?

I would discuss it with her therapist. Does the therapist feel that progress is being made? Can and her mom you help the progress? This might require some family sessions. If no progress is being made does the therapist feel that a change of therapist is needed? Why yes or no on the change?

My belief is that coordinating punishment and treament is best.

When I was in grade school I got caught stealing a candy bar from drug store while I was with my mom. My parents took turns beating me with a belt for half an hour, and then grounded me from TV, video games, and going out with my friends for a entire year. It worked. I never got caught again.

When, years later, my younger brother was caught stealing lighters from the same drug store while skipping church, he got told to think about what he had done, and then grounded for a week. Which lasted 2 days. It worked. To this day I resent them for it.

When one of my kids stole from someone in class, she was made to apologize to the whole class, and had to serve lunch detention (bus the lunchroom tables) for a month. She said it was so humiliating, she wouldn’t do it again. I don’t know if in the long term it worked, though at least she never got caught doing it again at school.

I work in juvenile diversion for teens who have shoplifted. This organization provides a home study/online course on theft prevention for juveniles. It costs $75 but they have a sliding scale. It’s what my county sometimes assigns juveniles who have shoplifted. I don’t really know its track record. Otherwise, we assign community service hours; for a kid her age, probably 2 hours a week for 4 weeks.

Definitely make her return any stolen items to the store. They may trespass her from it for a year, which might make an impact. Make sure to discuss it with the store ahead of time so that you know whether or not they press charges (you want to know what that would entail) or whether they’ll be too easy on her. She should also write a letter of apology to them.

We also make the kid fill out a form answering three questions: 1.) Who was harmed/affected by your offense? 2.) What damage, loss, harm, or effect resulted from your offense? 3.) What do you need to do to make things right with those affected/harmed by your offense?

I agree that the stealing is a symptom. But in the meantime, these may help it stop.

I think this is good advice, and while it sounds like punishment, it actually would be more along the lines of ‘‘restorative justice,’’ which HAS been proven to work. This involves accounting for the way her actions have impacted other people and communicating with them directly. It CAN be embarrassing/shame-inducing, but more importantly, it can put a human face on what your daughter might perceive as a victimless crime.

That’s terrible, man. The “taking turns” thing really got to me. Then I got to your part about resentment. Resentment is a bitter, bitter poison. They did a terrible thing to you, Hot.

Addressing the OP, I think what I wanted to say has already been addressed. If the punishments are escalating to the point that her room has nothing in it, then … that’s clearly not going to work. Either the punishments are feeding into some martyr complex or need for attention, or the compulsion is such that punishments aren’t going to deter her from feeding the compulsion.

Also, I can almost guarantee that the kid isn’t getting caught every single time and in fact, is probably getting better and better at it.

Shoplifting is a pretty common way of acting out for young teens - particularly young women. Stealing money and credit cards seems a bit more over the top.

I agree, this should be discussed with her therapist. I am curious to know what your daughter says when you ask her why she does this? Do her friends have the latest top/shoes/purse/gizmo and she’s stealing to buy these items to fit in? Is she feeling ignored and trying to get your attention even if it’s negative? Is she re-selling the items trying to get money for drugs or alcohol? Does she get a thrill from stealing/getting caught? I think you should ask her - based on her answer you may be able to figure out the best way to deal with the situation.