Ask a Therapist: Our Child is Stealing, What Should We Do?

Dear Therapist:

Our 11-year-old son has been stealing things from his friends in school. We keep finding things in his room that we know he didn’t get from us.  Recently he admitted that he took a toy from another boy’s briefcase. We are devastated.

We give him everything he needs and he comes from a house that I would say has excellent chinuch. I have no idea where he picked up such a horrible thing. Additionally, we are very worried that the Yeshiva will find out and he will get expelled.  We are uncertain what mehalach to take with him and are at a loss.

A family member suggested therapy but this seems to be more of a chinuch issue (I’m not sure I’m writing to the right panel). While it might be hard for me to be objective I would say that he is otherwise a solid kid. Any insight into this boy or suggestions as to how to deal with him would be greatly appreciated. 


There can be various motivations for your son’s behavior. Your concern is certainly valid, but it’s important for you to acknowledge your specific concern (aside from your fear that he might get into trouble at school) while, at the same time, understanding your son’s reasons for stealing. You may be surprised by your conclusions.

The things that lead adults to steal and children’s motivations for stealing are often very different. As adults, it can be challenging for us to recall and recognize childhood needs, feelings, thoughts, and impulses. For example, while an adult may steal out of perceived necessity, a child may do so specifically because he is given all that he needs. He may be stealing in order to feel a greater sense of control over his life and possessions.

The adult may have underlying emotions and needs that allow him to steal, but on the surface, he’ll typically justify his actions one way or the other. The child’s emotions, needs, and insecurities are usually closer to the surface. In addition, morality, conscience, and recognition of consequences often aren’t fully developed until the early teenage years.

Other motivating factors include the need for attention, a sense of being undervalued, the need for independence, and learned behavior (from family, peers, and others). Your son is likely not consciously aware of his underlying motivations. Talking with him, however, about what he feels when he contemplates taking something, and how he feels once he has taken it, can help to give you a better sense of the reasons for his actions. Once you understand what is pushing him in that direction, you’ll be in a better position to decide how to proceed.

Based on your words, it appears that you are raising your son with appropriate rules and boundaries. As adults, however, we often forget that things that are clear to us are not necessarily so for our children. Though the reasons not to steal (and to be generally honest) may seem obvious to us, a child typically does not understand these on the same level. He may not fully recognize the limits and boundaries of honesty, and he may see them simply as rules. Discussing with him the reasons for these rules can help him to better develop his sense of morality.

Whenever possible, your child should be shown how to return the stolen object, and he should not see any benefit from his negative actions. Hopefully the combination of his better understanding and firm, non-judgmental discipline will stop this problematic behavior. If the stealing continues, however—and/or you have the sense that there may be a deeper reason behind it—a therapist can help to identify his motivation and help him to deal with it in a positive way.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317

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