Jeltje Simons 
Article Title
The Money Is In The Drawer, Or Is It? Thoughts About Stealing  
Posted Date

We all know what the ultimate consequence is when people take things which do not belong to them.
This is on the back of my mind when I get a call from my child's teacher who found a banknote in his pocket, or when I dig out his pockets and toys I have never seen roll out. When I doubt myself if biscuits I had purchased yesterday are missing. Is it conscious stealing, or just an act of a toddler inside the delayed child, or the effects of neglect? One thing is sure: it is a bit of everything, but there is a problem if your money goes missing, regardless of the reason.

It appears that the hands of my child are "not connected" to his brain at times. There are some coins laying on the kitchen table and before I am even fully aware, those are in his pocket. That quick! I just witness the proof that I had a good night sleep, otherwise I would not even have time to notice!

How does the world react on young kids who have some 'cute factor' and steal? The world does not help much: I send the boy back with the candy bar that he took and then I get very annoyed when the cashier says: 'It does not matter'. Maybe she says this because she thinks I feel bad about it, maybe because he gives the impression of a really young child. But she gives the wrong message and it does matter. The message for the child who steals should not be a downplay or excuse. It is a serious problem that needs attention.

It starts like this: your newly adopted child has just come home, and most days are challenging as that is how most older child's adoptions begin. It is actually a huge shock to the household to make a child who is biologically not your own a member of your family. Older children who have lived in institutions, who do not know what a family is, those children do not know how to behave in this family; all they know are the behaviours that served them well in the orphanage.

Most children are super sweet until you want them to do something on your terms. If you read about this before adopting, you might think: "Great if that is the only problem my future child has, I can live with that, how difficult can it be? Those POB's are learned behaviours, so with loads of love and a bit of structure this will surely not going to be a huge problem." The reality is that in most children adopted at an older age those behaviours are deeply engrained. I feel passionate about older child adoptions, those children deserve to be adopted. But post-orphanage behaviours are serious and real, the chances that your new child will disappoint you and will be stealing and lying are very realistic. And the chance that this is 'just a phase' is small. These are survival and learned behaviours, and with the right interventions the child can overcome his feelings of entitlement, but very rarely these are quick fixes. The neglect those children have suffered was also not caused in a day, these were years of neglect and the effects are not magically going 'away' because the child is adopted now. Changing them can take years. Some behaviours become personal characteristics and may always stay with the child. Their neediness, their longing for attention, their trauma can last a lifetime; the task might change over the years from changing the child to teaching the child to live with their limitations.

Your first notice that things go wrong

In my case I was sort of sure I had a 100 in my wallet, but I was doubting myself, I was stressed, had just adopted a new child, so I blamed my own mindset for this confusion. It took a week or 2 before I found 86 or so outside under the trash container. Now I began to realize that this was the work of the new inhabitant. The first cracks appeared in my attitude to always believe you little boy, to always trust you dear child.

Does he trust me to feed him? He takes and hides food which he then eats, including cat biscuits. I have never tasted them but he tells me these biscuits are nice and taste like fish! If you walk into your child's room and there is a smell you can't identify and a few days later it is so strong that it is no longer difficult to locate (rotten stashed away food), then you know what I am talking about. I have always fed my boy consistently, he is always allowed to eat fruit or bread if we are longer than 30 minutes away from dinner time, but we are in the third year after the adoption and he still hoards food given a chance. So feeding him plenty during 3 years is not enough to help him stop eating cat food and hiding food. It is another example of a POB and it relates to trust. No quick solutions. I presume at the moment he can trust me more, he will stop.

The attitude of the parent

Lying is also a big problem; the reality is that I can only believe my child 50% of the time. It is sad when you think about it, but this is unfortunately not uncommon in adopted children. The first important thing when dealing with a child who steals and lies is the attitude of the parent. It is good to reflect what this behaviour does to you. Does it make you very angry? Do you feel helpless? Do you overreact? Does it make you fearful for the future? These are all normal reactions. It is easy to say 'stay neutral,' but nearly impossible if the child steals in the family or you have to deal with people who are affected by your child's actions.

Stealing and lying are related to trust. Living with an individual who steals makes everyone in the household suspicious. You have to start over and give the child new chances of course, but keep in mind you are likely to be disappointed time after time. Learn to step back a few steps and do not make this your emotional struggle, disappointment, and shame - you did not cause this. The child has problems, but you have to deal with them even if those behaviours are going against every grain of decency you grew up with.

Young children often do not grasp the concept that the item belongs to someone or that the items must be paid for in a shop. By 4 years of age most biological children understand 'this is mine, that is yours'. Not necessarily adopted children. Older ones may have understanding of ownership but not be able to control the impulsive behaviour; they may be led by others and want to impress. Diagnoses, mental health problems and disorders do not really matter: stealing is stealing. Never use your child's problems as an excuse for stealing, there are many people in jail who have very serious mental health problems, but society is not that forgiving and those problems do not prevent jail if the young adult still thinks like a toddler.

You can pretend you do not know that your younger child steals, you can make excuses, but you lose valuable time when things could have been turned around: the more often the child does something, the more it becomes a habit.

Keep thinking: prevention!

I believe preventing stealing as much as possible is important as it is easier to learn a new behaviour than forget a learned one. Not only will you break the old habit, but a good behaviour replaces stealing when you work on prevention; then the parents themselves are more relaxed, which is important too: being often angry and disappointed is not good for their child's self esteem ("another thing I did wrong"). Of course it is very wrong, and you are justified to be angry, but they often do not learn a lot from the emotions of their parents.

We want to prevent stealing, and there is no one method fitting all situations. A lot depends on the child's age and developmental stage, and the time spent in orphanage before adoption.

  • Children under 5 do not need any interventions other than simple straightforward explanation of the situation at hand, for example: you first are pointing at daddy then at the child and saying: "Those glasses are daddy's, not yours". It is good to practice this often during the day as well: "This is mine (point at yourself), and that is yours" (point at the child). It is especially important for children with developmental delays and new language learners. They need to know that everything belongs to someone.
  • Teach the child at young age to ask permission to play with toys that are not his, do not allow the child to search drawers etc. Yes, your home is now the child's home, but only the child's bedroom and dedicated places (like toy baskets in the lounge, one shelf of books, etc) in the house are the child's territory. They need to learn to respect the other people's belongings, as they do not know boundaries and they will be going through all what is yours if there are no rules. And even with rules in place, the concept that this is not allowed is often difficult to understand for the former orphanage resident: remember that most orphans have not had their own belongings, and if they had these things would be easily taken or broken by other children.

The trust issue

How beautiful to trust the child! In most cases the birth children learn that trust is important, and when they break it mummy or daddy are disappointed; the children do not like this as they want to please the parent.
Now adopted children with their wobbly attachment and impulsive behaviours. Often they do not fully understand what trust is and this needs to be explained time after time. I do it like this with my son:

  • I often say if my child lies: "I have no idea if you are telling me the truth. And this is a problem as one day something very important happens, you tell me about it, and I will think it is not true."
  • We talk about trust. I asked him to give me an example of not trusting someone and he came up with one occasion in his class. I asked: "Why don't you trust them?" And he told me: "Because they say 'look outside the classroom' and I looked and there was nothing there".
    I told him they were joking but also that it was a very good example. As now he does no longer look outside if they tell him to. So he cannot trust what they say.
  • I link his example back to him telling that I also cannot trust him because he lies so much. We talk about how he can earn trust back by doing or saying everything truthfully, by listening and following up with the requests, by answering politely and honestly, by making good choices.

How to deal with the younger children stealing?

  • Things need to be returned by the child (with the parent present), the child needs to apologize and a consequence should follow. Something needs to be done for the person they hurt by stealing. The 5-year-old can make a drawing, the 9-year-old should do more serious work like gardening, mowing the lawn, doing errand, etc.
  • If the child has stolen from a shop, the item should be returned. When the child gets older it might be good to call the shop in advance to avoid an assistant who tells her 'it is OK'.
    I have heard people suggest not to bring the stolen thing back together with the child because you will shame the child. I do not agree, I would be happy if my child felt shame, as that would be a healthy reaction. I prefer that he now learns that stealing comes with consequences (facing what you have done, bringing stuff back, apologizing, etc) instead of facing serious consequences as an adolescent or young adult. A good prevention, of course, would be not to allow children who are still in the process of learning about entitlement being unsupervised in shops.
  • If the child has stolen from a friend, the natural consequence would be that the child cannot play at other people's house.
    For some children letting the child from whom they stole choose something out of their own toys might have an impact even if their attitude is one of 'I don't care, they can have every toy I own, I do not want toys anyway'.
    Other children can of course play at the child's home as you are there to supervise, or the child can play outside with other children.
  • Be open with friends and family members, tell them your child has trouble understanding what belongs to him and what does not, and he is learning to respect other people's property. Ask them not to leave small items like coins laying around when your child visits. Give school permission to search the child.
  • Do not feel ashamed on behalf of the child.
  • Stitch pockets of the jackets and other clothing: if the child does not have places to hide stolen goods it becomes more complicated.
  • Make the child's bedroom absolutely clutter free. At the moment my child has no lockers: all storage space is open. Just shelving with look through plastic boxes to store toys and even clothes. This saves me the frustration of having to search his bedroom. It is also very easy to keep tidy, as one look is enough to see if he cleared away his toys. The boxes are marked, so there is no confusion what should be in which box; they are also easily emptied out on the floor to be sorted by the child again if everything is mixed up.
    Check your child's bedroom daily.
  • I have chosen not to give my child pocket money at the moment; this makes it easier for me to monitor as there is no confusion where the money comes from if he has some.
    I have tried for a while to give pocket money but it became all consuming for him. And it took about 2 weeks before the piggybank was half full, and he only got 2 coins every week!
    I may start giving him pocket money again when he has some money concept and understands numbers up to a 100. But then good administration needs to accompany the piggybank.

Training and letting the child experience the good (no stealing) behaviour

It's important to consistently train the child in proper behaviour until it becomes his new habit. For example, the child is touching everything in a shop, and from touching letting the item slide in a pocket is a small step. So now you want the child to hold his hands behind his back while walking through a shop (as pockets are already stitched up), or push a trolley, or carry a basket: you are working on making this behaviour his new habit while visiting a shop. It took about 60/70 corrections for my child to do this habitually while being in a shop. So do not get discouraged if your child does not do what you want her to do straight away. Just keep trying.

  • Explain the rule: "If you 'find' money you return it to me," and create practice moments,
    leaving some money out sometimes to see what the child chooses to do. My son gives it back more often than he takes it now.
  • Talk or read them stories about children/people who steal and the consequences that follow: no trust, no friendship, police involvement, etc.
  • Talk about being in a situation when something is stolen from them. Your bike gets stolen, how would you feel? How will it be for you not having your bike? (Walking, having to buy a new one and not having money for something else, etc, etc).
  • If talking does not work, let the child experience how it is to have something stolen from him. Organize that something from the child gets 'stolen', then you have something personal to talk about. This item should never be 'returned' to make the child aware how they hurt others by taking stuff. Remove something with value for the child.
  • Besides normal family life it is also important to spend time with your child 1:1 even if it is only 20 minutes every day. You do not need to make the child aware of this, just choose a quiet moment every day when you are alone with them. Forget about the dish washer; washing and drying the dishes together is an excellent moment for 1:1 time. Sing together or play word games: "Who knows more animals starting with letter 'P', etc." It is often easier to talk when you are doing something simple. No heavy stuff, just talk about day to day subjects that interest the child. Create those positive moments.
  • Talk mainly about stealing as 'taking things that do not belong to you', do not call a young child a thief - it is not appropriate and works against reinforcing positive self esteem. Select the stories to read that have clearly defined models like thieves, police, victim etc. - it's easier for you to make a link to the child's stealing and how other people view it.
  • Set up camera or any kind of alarm on the doors if your child is sneaking around the house during the night. I do not recommend motion detectors as my child managed to get out by opening the door very slowly and then going under the sensor. Cheap alarms (like those used to guard windows, with sticky tape to attach) are just fine and easily replaced. They make a lot of noise and I attach 2 on his door to add extra security in case batteries run low.

Working with teenagers who steal

If the teen is at home less than a year, treating him as a much younger child is in most cases appropriate, including using the above measures. They might be 12 or 15 but if they lived for years in orphanage, there are many 'first time' occasions for them too and they need to learn a lot of skills normally acquired at a much younger age. They might not know or have real understanding of the meaning of words like 'trust' or 'responsibility' or 'disrespect' etc. With them it's especially important to prevent stilling from the very beginning of their life at home.

  • If the teen steals out of a shop, the item needs to be returned by them (the parent is there supervising,) and consequences enforced by the shop might follow (ex.: the child is no longer allowed in this shop or police involvement follows). Be neutral about this: this is what happens if you steal. Do not cover up for the child or try to downplay it because it is difficult for them. You need to support the child but not their misguided behaviours. Let them feel they are responsible to earn the trust of the adults around, to make things right again. They need to know you support whatever consequence society gives them.
  • To make sure the child understands the seriousness of the situation, give her work to do at home to earn 5 - 10 times more money than the value of the stolen object.. Give the earned money to the child and then let the teen donate this money to a good cause. Make it understood that until the goods are paid for, there are no 'extras' for the child and they will not be allowed spending pocket money on anything else.
  • Talk with the teen about how stealing from a shop will make every item more expensive. Talk a lot about trust and how she breaks it stealing from friends and family.
  • Do not spoil children by giving them whatever they want. For most teens wearing the 'right' shoes or clothes is important. If you just give them what they want, they might get the impression they are entitled to those things. If they really want something, give them the opportunity to earn the money. It takes a bit of time to get the desired object, but it is good to learn to be patient.
  • Make an arrangement with the teen that the bedroom needs to be tidy every Saturday morning, then ask them to show you the room. Look everywhere if you do not trust them, under the mattress, in drawers, behind curtains, under carpet if there is a bubble, etc. If stealing is a problem, make sure the room is not full of stuff and search daily. Remember: less stuff is better for the child and for you. If stealing becomes less of a problem stop searching the room daily again.
  • Show your feelings and talk with them how you feel about stealing. You want to be able to trust them, you want to believe them, you care about them and love them that is why you are now very disappointed. Do not get extremely angry, do not lose it with them - this will not be productive. But there is nothing wrong with showing feelings.
  • Make sure that your teen has interesting and exciting things to do: sports, music, dance, rock climbing etc. As stealing involves a thrill factor, it is good when they can experience thrill from healthy activities.
  • If your teen is attracted to a wrong crowd, you may need to put boundaries in place to limit or stop contacts. Talk also to the child how to say 'no' to friends.
  • Do not give your teen free internet access, and if they have a mobile phone make sure you know how it works and check often what they are up to. Of course if the child has a mobile or internet access, this can be taken away if misused. If your child has used your credit card to pay for items or games, the money needs to be returned to you. The item has to be returned but if that is not possible, do not give it to the teen, sell it on ebay. There should never be a reward for stealing. Even if they return the money, still do not allow them to have the item. It is your responsibility to lock credit cards and money away, even if it is only to prevent your own frustration.
  • Talk about the repercussions: not only what other people (family or friends) will think, but also the implications of a criminal record. Ask them what they think the problems might be later if they get a criminal record.
  • Encourage finding a job, any small job would be good if the teen learns to work for money and to realize that he/she is not entitled to whatever they fancy, that earning money is an effort.
  • Try to keep the relationship with your child positive, take initiative when you feel the relationship gets strained. You as a parent are the one with more life experience, you are not on the equal footing with your teen. They need boundaries and you need to be their 'leader', not their friend. On the other hand, they have a lot of emotions, feelings, and immature behaviours, so do not be overly critical as that can hurt their feelings and you want to prevent their withdrawal. When you disagree with your teen you might say things you regret later; do not be afraid to say 'sorry' if you overstep boundaries in the heat of a moment and say something hurtful.
  • Teens are very good in turning the truth slightly around, 'I borrowed the ipad', 'I only looked at it, you get it back', 'It is too small for you anyway', etc, etc. Do not buy into those excuses.

Most children who steal also lie so believably, that it is difficult to know the truth. You know deep down the child lies and has taken your watch, you have however not caught him red handed. Of cause it is not good to hand out consequences if you are not sure, but it is also not good for the child to get away with stealing and lying. So if I have a gut feeling my child is lying after stealing something, he gets a consequence, and I go through the steps as if I am 100% sure he did it. This works fine and so far I have not been wrong, and he always admits guilt eventually. However, if I get it wrong one day then I will say: "Sorry that you had to do XXXX and that happened to you, please understand it is very difficult for me to know when you speak the truth and when you are lying, because you say a lot of things that are not true. Now you see how lying gets you into trouble even if it was not your fault this time. Do not lie, because one day something really important can happen and nobody believes you anymore."

Be confident that if the situation does not look good it probably is not good. Observe the child's body language carefully. Do not only look at their face but also at the feet, they do not lie. Read a book about body language if you are unsure what to look for, it is very interesting. My child looks me straight in the face while lying, and makes the falsehood very convincing, yet his body and movement tell a different story.

It is not easy to live with a child who steals, it is a nuisance to have to lock away everything you really value, it is painful to always be on guard. But that is how it is with the child who needs to learn to deal differently with the problems he has. You are not the one who caused these difficulties, but you have to deal with them.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys now age 9 and 14. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK.

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