More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Children Who Steal
Tue, Jan 15, 2008
By Robert Needlman, M.D.

I got a call today from a very worried mom: Her son had started stealing. He's a 12 year old boy (I'll call him Danny) who is smart, curious, and good-hearted. He also has ADHD.

I've known Danny for years. When I first met him, he was vaulting onto the table in a tiny exam room in our clinic. He would run three steps, throw himself into the air, and crash onto the padding. It was hard to get him to sit still for a minute. When he finally slowed down, it was to tell me a whole lot about something he was interested in (was it cars or dinosaurs?) Along with high energy, Danny had a lot of information. He loved learning things, just not always what the teachers wanted him to.

Danny's father had been the same way when he was young. Back then, he was just considered wild. He'd dropped out of school, taken drugs, and made a mess of his life. Then he cleaned up his act, met a good woman, and settled down. He was a gentle, steady, and concerned father. He didn't want his son to follow in his footsteps.

That was a few years ago. With hard work by his parents and teachers, and with hefty doses of medication, Danny had come a long way. He was able to come to the clinic without jumping on anything. He was doing well in school - not as well as he might have, given his high IQ - but not failing either. For the most part, he was behaving himself, too, at home and at school.

Then I got this call. Danny had taken some money from his mother's purse. Rather than try to hide it, he had talked openly about how loaded he was, then made up some weak story about how he'd saved up the money. It took his mom about 30 seconds to see through the lie.

A little before that, he'd been caught taking extra food from school. There were two or three single-serving boxes of cereal in his room. This wasn't grand theft coco-puffs, but it was still taking something that wasn't his. And there was another similar episode, taking stuff at home that he should have left alone. His parents were worried.

Stealing is frightening. Parents easily connect the dots from the first pilfered cookie to the first stolen car, then to twenty years behind bars. Stealing seems like proof of poor morals, of bad upbringing, or maybe of deep psychological trouble. But it isn't always so.

Often, children take things just because they want to. The things are there, the desire flares up, and the children simply give in. Or rather, the internal brakes that normally hold a child back aren't strong enough to stop the impulse from becoming an action.

This failure of internal control happens often to children with ADHD. In fact, weak control systems lie at the heart of the disorder. A child with ADHD goes into a candy store, sees something he wants, and pops it into his pocket. He doesn't plan ahead, look around, wait for the right moment. No, he pops the candy into his pocket with the store clerk standing two feet away! Kids with ADHD make lousy thieves.

Danny has never been a bad kid, and he didn't suddenly become one. But the urge to take is strong, and his internal controls weren't up to the challenge. What he needs now are consequences, small punishments that fit his crimes. And he needs to learn that there are better ways to get the things you want. He has to learn the good feeling that comes with working for something, then paying for it with a good conscience. I hope we have a snowy winter this year: Danny needs to do a whole lot of shoveling.


I remember taking things as a child,I didnt realize that they werent free for the taking at the time.

When I caught any of my kids stealing(they usually didnt just one time) I would take them back to the scene of the crime,admit what they did and make them apologize or pay for the theft in some way.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
It also depends on the age of the child. Very young children don't really have a concept of stealing, since they are still developing the concept of "me" vs. "other people" or even "other objects" existing independently of the child himself.

Having logical consequences for stealing helps children to learn that it is wrong, but the consequences don't need to be harsh or physical. They just need to make the point that it is wrong and that when you do something wrong you make amends or reparations.


My niece is 16 and living with me right now. She has been stealing - money and cigarettes mainly. She stole over $700 from my business. I can't prove it (but last I checked money doesn't grow legs and walk) and when confronted she swears up and down she didn't, even though she has admitted to stealing i nthe past. It's frustrating. She can charm the pants off of anyone, and can manipulate and lie and have everyone fooled. We don't know what to do anymore. I've bought a safe for my stuff and since then it's been good, but she's stealing from my mom and step dad now. She's trying grade ten for the third time as she can't seem to pass more than one course per semester. She is on the fast track to a miserable life of stealing, lying, and cheating.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
One important thing to investigate is what she needs the money for or why she thinks she needs the money. Usually it's drugs of one kind or another. If not, the second most common is cigarettes because in most places now minors can't buy them (I find it oronic that any kid with a few bucks can buy weed in a grade 6 playground but they have to be 19 to buy cigarettes in our area).

If it's neither of those, then the question of what she's doing with the money and/or why she's stealing it is critical.


It's also possible that the money is a substitute for an emotional need in some way. Like children who hoard things but don't use them, because it makes them feel more secure. It could also be a symbol of an independence she's aching for in some way.
Not that any of those perspectives make in appropriate in any way...


It's definitely drugs...we know she's using drugs and doesn't want to give them up. Any action plan we've come up with can only be successful if she wants to get off drugs, which she doesn't. I think it's also that she wants to do things with her friends and doesn't have the money. She's been given tonnes of opportunity to earn money either by doing chores at home or working at my business, but she doesn't want to. I guess it's easier to steal than work for what she wants.


Unfortunately I can relate to both stealing as a child and to your niece BG. I too was in the exact same situation at 16 as your niece and was stealing money for drugs. I didn't care who I stole from and what I stole as long as I got some cash or items which could be sold, that was all that mattered.

The only difference was that you really seem to care about your niece, are not turning a blind eye to what is going on and are willing to help her in any way you can. That is huge in my opinion. I did not have that which made things continue on for longer because I felt like no one cared.

I honestly think that getting a safe was a good plan and locking up anything that is of value. Don't forget that she is probably not going to be looking for just money...items have value as well.

Although at her age I was working and making good money, stealing was much easier and at that time, the more money that I had the better. It also made me more popular with my friends that didn't have any money because I had lots.

Anyway, I don't know if I really have a point but I guess I just wanted to say that I can relate to having been in your nieces position and to let you know that I came through that "rough time" and I truly hope that she does as well.

Keep caring for her...she will come around.
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