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Help! My Child Is Stealing From Me!

Updated on October 24, 2012

"Help. My eleven year old daughter is out of control. She snuck out of the house to attend a school dance without my knowledge. Then she lied about it. I grounded her from TV, the phone, and all activities outside of school. Then recently, she stole my debit card."

You would be amazed how many seemingly wonderful parents I run into who are dealing with major behavioral issues in their children of all ages. Most of these parents mistakenly assume a couple of things:

  1. Events such as the two examples here are isolated incidents and can be solved exclusively with the right kind of punishment.
  2. Such behaviors are only a "phase" and they will pass naturally with time.
  3. Simply coming up with more creative and much harsher approaches to punishment will teach the child a lesson and end the behavior.

Unfortunately, in my experience, such behavior is only indicative of a much bigger problem going on. What parents need to start doing is identifying the attitude, and attacking that, rather than attempting to stay one step ahead of such defiant behavior.


What You Might Be Tempted to Do

  1. Ground her for the rest of the year.
  2. Take away Christmas.
  3. Make her do community service every weekend until next August.
  4. Take everything out of her room, including all of her toys and cute clothes so she'll understand who is in control.

Why The Above Will Not Work

Think about. If she's already grounded for months, you've completely lost your leverage. She'll give up. (She'll think, well, I'm already grounded for the dance issue, how much worse could it possibly get? Why should I do anything my mom says for the entire time I'm grounded, there is nothing left for her to take away.) At all times, kids need to feel a sense of hope. If you put unreasonably long punishments on them, they really do just give up.

Get to the Heart of the Issue

There is a much bigger issue going on with this young girl besides stealing.

The problem here is defiance, rebellion, and ultimately disrespect.

This parent could brainstorm all year for creative punishment solutions to each infraction, and this girl will probably just keep finding new ways to misbehave.

My suggestion is to get down to the root of the issue.

I used to work at a wilderness camp for juvenile delinquent teens, and though this child may not (yet) have broken the law, the signs are the same. If mom and dad don't curb this attitude, and quick, they will have much bigger issues later. Imagine when she's sixteen, can drive, and is interested in dating.

So What Do I Do, Exactly?

First, get her father on board (if he's in the picture). Teaming up is always a good idea. Get on the same page with dad so the two of you can support each other and she won't play one of you against the other.

Then, sit down and have a "family meeting." I suggest laying out ALL the inappropriate behaviors your daughter is showing, in addition to reviewing the expectations. This can be done in a way that isn't terribly threatening, if you plan it, and possibly practice, in advance. Give her an opportunity to talk about what is going on.

A great question to ask, and ask often, is, "What is that you really want?"

Kids act out because they are attempting to meet an unmet need or are angry/hurt about something. Often, actually, it is a combination of both of these things. Her first couple of answers will very likely include selfish and quick fed desires. ("I just wanted to go to the dance," or, "You never buy me anything so I needed money.")

This is not the root of her behavior. You need to get to the core. Ultimately, the four psychological "needs" boil down to love, power, freedom, and/or fun. Figure out which of these she most desires right now.

Example might be: "I want you and dad to just leave me alone and let me do things that all my friends do."

Okay. She's eleven. That's not happening. But don't just close the door with a big fat "Hell no," and walk away.

Ask things like: Why do you think your dad and I are so strict about knowing where you are and who you are with? What kind of parents would we be if we just let you do whatever you want? What kinds of things could happen if you got to do whatever you want without our permission or even knowledge of them? How many of your classmates are actually doing some pretty stupid stuff right now? What do you think is going to happen to them?

*She knows the answer to these questions.

Here is where you draw the unwavering boundaries, whatever they are for you. (I say, the smaller the better, personally.) Right now she has completely lost your trust. She needs to earn it back. *She also knows this, she's just hoping you'll ignore it and it will go away.

Turn everything back on her. Do not suggest that any part of her behavior is somehow your fault. Make her responsible for her choices. Guide her to admitting that she really does understand there is such a thing in life as consequences, and ultimately, the ones that don't come from parents are far worse than the ones that do. I always take everything to the worst possible place it could go (because, for many kids, it goes there, way too quickly).

Finally, don't be irrational. Don't get angry. And be smart. Kids can obviously detect parental BS from a mile away. But you can certainly talk about real-life things that very easily could happen if she continues to act without any respect for your rules and without basic respect for you as her parents. It will eventually translate to disrespecting other adults. (I always say, "If you can't trust and respect me, the one human on earth who loves you the most, then who is left in your corner when everything comes crumbling down?)

I know this all sounds extreme, but you can tailor all of it to your daughter and your situation. The number one thing not to forget, no matter what is that you are her parents. You, and your rules, deserve to be respected. She can hate you. But she needs to respect your roles as the parents. The love will come back later, I promise.

Final Thoughts

You are right to inflict natural consequences for inappropriate behavior. Keep in mind that the most effective consequences are delivered immediately and consistently, and are age-appropriate. At eleven years old, it is appropriate to have privileges taken away. But just sweeping all privileges off the table for months at a time is unreasonable.

In the incidence of the dance, one approach would be to pick the very next two social events and say, "You will not go to ________ because of this. And, if you want to go to __________ (the social event after that), your attitude needs to change, completely."

To speak directly to the stealing issue, you need to attack the fact that she has completely broken your trust, and now needs to work to earn it back.

Once she has taken responsibility for her actions, confirmed understanding of the consequences of these actions and how they affect everyone around her, and you've identified her core needs/desires, come up with a plan together to appropriately meet her needs by setting small and realistic goals.

You have to give her something to work toward. Keep some rewards on the table so she feels accomplishment when she does what is expected. I'm not saying you should create rewards for behavior that is expected (she's not a toddler anymore), but give her age-appropriate privileges that match an age-appropriate attitude and age-appropriate behavior.

Also, you need to ride out the punishment period with her. If you take away the TV, for example, the TV needs to be off in the house while she is awake. This way, when she earns back the right to watch TV, the entire family celebrates together.

Most of my advice is adapted from the theories of William Glasser, outlined in his book Reality Therapy. Though it is not specifically a parenting book, it is a very short read with very applicable ideas for behavioral change. I have used his approach with great success for six years as counselor, high school teacher, and parent.


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