Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on December 9, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 9, 2013

What Is Stealing?

Stealing is the act of taking something that does not belong to you without permission. An example is removing an object from a store without paying for it (this is shoplifting). 

Stealing does not have to be a physical act. It is also possible to steal another person’s thoughts or ideas.

Although stealing is an inappropriate behavior, it is relatively common in children. It often occurs before a child understands why it is wrong. Most children simply outgrow this behavior. In other cases, stealing can be a sign of more serious problems and a precursor to other delinquency in a child or teen.

Stealing is a crime that can lead to punishments such as fines or jail time.


What Leads to Stealing?

Stealing becomes an issue when the person doing the stealing is old enough to know better. Sometimes children under the age of five take objects that interest them, not yet understanding that stealing is wrong. They might not have enough self-control to resist taking something they want.

For those old enough to know better, there are several reasons for stealing. Stealing may be caused by jealousy, low self-esteem, or peer-pressure. Social issues like feeling excluded or overlooked can also cause stealing. People may steal to prove their independence, to act out against family or friends, or because they do not respect others or themselves,

Sometimes, stealing is a compulsive disorder. This is called kleptomania. In other cases, a person may have come to believe that stealing is socially acceptable. Some people steal as a means to survive due to economic hardship. Others simply enjoy the rush of stealing, or steal to fill an emotional or physical void in their lives.

What Are the Effects of Stealing?

Stealing affects the people who steal, the people in their lives, and the victims of theft.

People who steal often suffer from guilt, shame, or embarrassment after stealing something. They might be afraid to tell anyone out of fear of punishment. If caught, they may be punished for their crime. Punishment depends on the item stolen, whether the person has been caught stealing before, and the wishes of the person who was stolen from.

Victims of theft can be angry, feel disrespected, and be afraid of future theft. Replacing the stolen item may be costly.

Victims of theft often feel less safe, are less trusting, and are worried about repeat theft. These feelings can cause paranoia or violent behavior.

Preventing Your Child From Stealing

Parents play a primary role in preventing stealing. They must teach their children about property rights and respect for others, and they must model good behavior as positive role models.

If a child steals, he or she must first be taught that theft is wrong. Understanding the child’s motivation will help determine whether other actions are necessary. Sometimes a child will steal to get an adult’s attention or out of anger or jealousy. In such cases, an adult should find out how to work through such challenges.

The child should not benefit in any way from stealing. Parents should discuss how the child will pay for the item or return it to the owner. That stealing is not acceptable behavior must be made clear.

Getting Help for Persistent Stealing

When theft is repetitive or is done without any remorse, guilt, or understanding of the impact, it can be a sign of other problems. These can include family trouble, mental health issues, or delinquency. Children who steal often have trouble making and keeping friends, have poor relationships with adults, or have issues with trust.

If emotional or mental health issues could be the reason for stealing, a child might benefit from seeing a therapist or mental health professional.

In adults, stealing is a punishable crime. If persistent stealing is a symptom of a mental health issue such as kleptomania, psychological care may be helpful. 

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