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Stealing Prevention & Cessation Program: A Psychoeducational/Behavioural Approach

Dr. Charles Emmrys Ph.D.

May 1997


Stealing is a relatively common act that a most of us will commit before leaving adolescence. By some estimates, more than 50% of individuals will commit a chargeable stealing offense at some point in their lives. It is also true that most who have stolen did so less than 5 times during a short period, did so out of curiosity, and were never discovered. For a smaller group, stealing is a frequent behavior that becomes part of a pattern that is hard to break. For these individuals, discovery is almost universal and the consequences quite severe. In addition to the possible legal sanctions, stealing behavior erodes the basic trust necessary for friendships and supportive relationships to develop. Within the family, having a member who regularly steals is a major stressor that can result in strain between family members and psychological pain for those most directly involved. In the community, people known to steal are quickly labeled and often rejected. Those who readily accept someone with that reputation are often committed to a delinquent lifestyle themselves and will only encourage more stealing behavior over time. It is important, therefore, for interveners to develop powerful and effective intervention strategies for changing and hopefully eliminating stealing behavior.

Stealing is a behavior pattern that is quite difficult to change. One problem is that the behavior is inherently rewarding to the child or youth. If the child/youth has few other areas in his life that are positive, he/she can become dependent on stealing, using it as a powerful means of self-soothing. This is especially true if child/youth's interactions with friends and caregivers are mostly negative or critical. Changing stealing is made more difficult by the fact that stealing is a covert behavior making it hard for parents or interveners to consistently catch and consequence every time he or she does the behavior. Without consistency, interveners feel quite ineffective and the behavior tends to persist.

A New Understanding Stealing:

Stealing behavior has always carried with it a heavy moral sanction. Stealing also brings about great shame and individuals who do steal will often deny vehemently that they do so even when told that they will not be punished if they tell the truth. Often, more energy is spent by the child or youth in avoiding the moral judgments of others than in avoiding getting caught for the act itself. We have found that as long as parents, teachers and interveners are perceived by the child or youth as being ready to pass a moral judgment, it is likely that the child will energetically avoid working with them to correct their stealing behavior. To be effective in working with children and youth with a stealing problem, adults need first to adopt a non-moralistic “here is the problem – here is the solution” approach. Taking a social learning perspective is one way to achieve this. From this perspective, stealing is seen as the failure of an individual to understand and learn concepts of private property and personal space. In other words, stealing is less an assault on a person or a defect in moral character and more a failure to have adequately learned about boundaries that define what is mine and what is not mine. When these boundaries are not learned and understood, taking something from someone else is perceived completely differently and does not create the anxiety it would cause in others.

Property boundary and personal space rules are learned early on in life. They differ from society to society and at times from family to family. A good example of this was shared with me by a friend some years ago. He was from Toronto and he decided to move to a warm climate so he found a place in Africa to settle. He developed close friendships with a number of people in the neighboring village and felt very much accepted. One morning he woke up to find that his wheelbarrow and his gardening tools had disappeared. He called the police and reported them stolen. Three days later his wheelbarrow reappeared with all of his tools. As it turns out, a friend from the village had taken them because he was tilling his garden that week. His friend then patiently explained to him that among those in the village, such tools are a common property. It turns out that he was more accepted by his new friends than he thought and learned that this friendship meant relearning and adjusting private property boundary rules.

If we accept that stealing is a result of a child or adolescent's failure to learn their society's property and personal space boundary rules, we would expect also to see problems with other related behaviors that indicate the same failure to learn. These would include the following:

  1. Frequently borrowing material from others with or without permission.
  2. Lending and sharing one's possessions without much concern for where things land up.
  3. Giving away one's possessions for attention or friendship.
  4. Frequent wandering into other people's space, particularly family members’ rooms.
  5. Finding and keeping objects without much concern for who might have owned it before.

In our work, we have found a high correlation between the above noted behaviors and stealing. Many of these behaviors appear early on prior to any evidence of stealing. We therefore see them as precursors to stealing. Some of these behaviors may even be valued and encouraged by care givers (such as sharing of one's toys). Parents are often not aware that the child that holds onto his/her toys and gets upset if others use them is learning about ownership boundaries. As this lesson is mastered the idea of taking something that belongs to someone else becomes so unacceptable that even the thought of doing so causes considerable anxiety.

The task of helping someone give up stealing is one, therefore, of teaching the person about what property boundaries are what the relationship is between respecting these boundaries and gaining the trust of others.

We have developed a program that presents a step by step intervention method that allows parents, teachers and interveners to challenge and reduce stealing in a humane and supportive way. The approach differs from other interventions by focusing on the causative factors responsible for stealing and by finding more appropriate ways of addressing the nurturing needs being inappropriately met through the stealing behavior.

If you are a licensed mental health care professional and you want to receive a copy of the Stealing Prevention & Cessation Program free of charge you can contact us and we will gladly forward you the material.

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