Stealing is the act of taking something that doesn’t belong to you without permission. When we hear the word “stealing,” we often think of someone breaking into our homes or shoplifters trying to smuggle high-priced products out of a store. We think of career criminals, or stealing for dishonest personal gain.
While stealing can be dishonest criminal theft, it can also be the result of poor impulse control or addictive compulsive disorders.
Kleptomania, or compulsive stealing, is a common cause of theft that many forget about. This type of stealing is about a psychological compulsion instead of a desire to profit or gain something material or financial, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition.
Kleptomania is a recurrent failure to resist the urge to steal. In most cases of kleptomania, the person steals things that they don’t need. The items stolen are often of little to no value, and they could often easily afford the item if they had decided to pay. This is unlike most cases of criminal theft, where items are stolen either out of need or because they’re very expensive or valuable.
People with kleptomania feel strong urges to steal, with anxiety, tension, and arousal leading up to the theft and feeling pleasure and relief during the theft. Many kleptomaniacs also feel guilty or remorseful after the act of stealing is over, but are later unable to resist the urge.
People with kleptomania also typically steal spontaneously and alone, while most criminal thefts are planned in advance and may involve another person.
Unlike criminal theft, the items that people with kleptomania steal will rarely be used. They’ll likely stash them away, throw them out, or give them to friends and family.
Other causes of stealing
Many other factors besides kleptomania can cause a person to steal. 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.
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 don’t respect others or themselves.
Different factors can contribute to kleptomania. Genetics and biology may account for a portion of the root causes, which include:
- having other mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, or personality disorders (The link seems to be strongest with obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
- problems with low levels of serotonin, leading to an increase in impulsive behaviors
- relations with addictive disorders, since stealing can release the rush of dopamine that becomes addictive
- an imbalance in the brain’s opioid system, which controls urges
- a family history of kleptomania or addiction
- being female, as two-thirds of people diagnosed with kleptomania are women
- head trauma, like concussions
Psychological trauma, especially trauma at a young age, may also contribute to the development of kleptomania. Family dysfunction can also cause children to steal, which can set the stage for kleptomania tendencies when combined with other mood or addiction disorders.
In children vs. in adults
While parents can find it unsettling, it’s not common for young children to steal small things without knowing better. Young children, especially those under the age of 5, are prone to taking things that excite them. When you notice your young toddler or child stealing, you can teach them that it’s wrong.
There are a number of reasons older children may steal, and it’s rarely out of necessity. Sometimes older children steal as a show of courage or wit, trying to impress peers. In some cases, they’ll even do it to act out or get attention.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, when stealing in older children is persistent, it may indicate behavioral or emotional developmental problems. This can be caused by an unstable home life or genetic factors that can trigger such problems. Children who have consistent issues with stealing often have difficulty trusting others, and may blame the behavior on other people.
Adults often have very different reasons for stealing than children do. Adults are more likely to steal out of financial need than children. This often makes up a large portion of criminal theft.
Sometimes adults steal out of entitlement. These are often very, very minor thefts, like stealing boxes of tissues or a plush robe (and even mattress pads) from a hotel room, or a stapler from work. The person may feel that they’re paying enough for the hotel room, or that they’ve worked hard enough to have “earned it.”
Kleptomania is also a cause of stealing in adults. It causes theft of often small, insignificant items that the person who stole it doesn’t need. It’s an impulse control disorder, and the person stealing often regrets it immensely after it’s over.
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.
Treatment for kleptomania
Kleptomania is extremely difficult to treat alone, so getting medical help is a necessity for most who experience it. Treatment typically involves a combination of psychotherapy and medications, which can address triggers and causes.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is most commonly used to treat kleptomania. With this type of treatment, your therapist will help you learn to stop detrimental behavior and address the cognition that causes them. In cognitive therapy, your therapist may use:
- systematic desensitization, in which you practice relaxation techniques to learn to control the urges to steal
- covert sensitization, in which you imagine yourself stealing and then facing negative consequences like being arrested
Medications may be prescribed to address related mood or mental health disorders, like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your doctor may prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or an addiction medication that balances opioids to balance the brain chemistry that causes the urges to steal.
While kleptomania can’t be cured, it can be treated. Continual treatment and caution is required to avoid kleptomaniac relapses. If you’ve been doing well under treatment and start to experience urges to steal, make an appointment with your therapist or support group as soon as possible.