By Terrence J. Koller, Ph. D., The Theraplay Institute, Chicago

Children steal for a variety of reasons. For some it is for excitement, a challenge, a symbol of status among their peers. For others, it is a "stage" most frequently seen in the toddler who does not have a clear sense of what belongs to him or her. Stealing occurs again around the age of seven and still later in early adolescence. At these stages the child feels lonesome, distant from his or her parents, and self-conscious. Stealing here represents a blind craving that must be satisfied. The stolen object substitutes for the stimulation once provided by a parent who must gradually be left behind.

No matter the reason, adult reaction is universally shock and fright. Parents wonder where they went wrong and how it could happen in their family. They feel that they are under the microscope with all eyes questioning their child-rearing ability. Teachers worry that it may signal future anti-social behavior. All want the stealing to stop. Foster and older adoptive children are likely to steal. Separation from their original parent(s) no matter how bad they were, stuns the child into returning to an earlier level of relating to loved ones. A child does not handle loss like an adult who mourns. Instead, the child seeks immediate reduction of pain and a return to a pleasurable state. The child becomes greedy and insatiable. He or she sucks bites, rocks, spits and hits. No matter what the childís chronological age, his or her needs are those of a much younger child.

When a childís natural loved one becomes unavailable, he or she redirects his or her normal clinging behavior to substitute inanimate objects. If children have good foundations of closeness to their parents, they use a blanket or toy as a substitute for the security they feel with a parent, only then can they temporarily relinquish their parent and maintain peace of mind.

Foster and adoptive children do not have this foundation of closeness. Thus they either have no "security blanket" or it gives them no more comfort than does the original parent from whom they were removed. Thus they "steal" items belonging to their "new parents", a friend, or the teacher. Sometimes they "steal" items which remind them of these important people. Frequently these "stolen" objects appear worthless and not needed, making it difficult for adults to understand why they were taken.

Adults must, of course, respond to the childís stealing episode. The following guidelines should serve as a base when you confront the child about the incident:

  behavior : stealing
  emotions and development : regression
  emotions and development : emotional reasons for behaviors