Childhood ADHD and Stealing: What's Going on with Your Kid?
It's common for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to steal from family members and friends. Knowing ADHD is probably behind a child's stealing behavior doesn't make it less frustrating, of course, nor less scary. After all, outside our homes, stealing is illegal. Parents of children with mental illnesses already worry enough about our kids ending up in the legal system. It's important, then, to figure out what might be causing our children with ADHD to steal.
Four Reasons Your Child with ADHD Might Steal
Stealing is so common in children with ADHD that many wonder if stealing is a symptom of ADHD. There are four reasons why your child with ADHD is stealing. Knowing them can help you be a better parent.
1. Your Child with ADHD May Steal to Meet Personal Needs
Some children might find certain items comforting so they take them. Some may be bored and grab the first thing to occupy them. For my son, he's usually hungry. ADHD medications commonly cause decreased appetite. While on meds during the day, my son eats practically nothing. Then, at night, he becomes ravenous. If your child has disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) like mine, nothing triggers an outburst better than being "hangry".
My family has a years-long habit now of leaving out healthy snacks while locking our cabinets and fridge at night. Otherwise, my son steals things. Once, when he was little, he stole an entire cake and hid it under his bed. He rarely understands why we get upset, arguing that he was just hungry and needed food.
2. Child May Lack Impulse Control or Have Lowered Executive Functioning
I mentioned this when discussing childhood ADHD and lying, but symptoms of ADHD include lack of impulse control and poor executive functioning. For instance, when my son sees money lying around at home, he'll take it. He considers the immediate reward of having money to buy candy. He does not think past the candy-buying to the point where he gets in trouble for stealing.
So far, this behavior is limited to our home. We ground him when it happens, but the best we can do to prevent it is to remove the opportunity. When he's older, with better-developed executive functioning, we may change our response. For now, we just make sure money isn't lying around.
3. Conduct Disorders Cause Kids with ADHD to Steal
While it's not the case for my son, conduct disorder may be at play in some kids with ADHD, DMDD, or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Conduct disorder is defined as a pattern of behaviors that violate the basic rights of others. Age-appropriate norms are purposely violated. Children with this disorder may enjoy upsetting people and breaking rules. They typically know right from wrong.
This is much different than simply lacking impulse control or not anticipating consequences. If you suspect your child has conduct disorder, consult your pediatrician immediately.
4. Remember Your Child's Stage of Development Is Not the Same as His Peers
Finally, for some kids, they haven't reached the developmental stage in which they understand the moral implications of stealing. Toddlers, for instance, steal all the time. We don't get offended. We may not even call it stealing. As parents, we simply tell them it's "not nice" and make them give back the item they took.
Part of the definition of mental illness is that symptoms affect "normal" development. It's hard, as a parent of a child with mental illness, then, to know if our kids' behaviors are typical or not. A provider once told me I should expect my son to always be about three years behind his peers in behavioral and emotional control. I don't know if this is scientifically valid, but it does seem to be the case. My daughter is three years younger than my son. She does not have a mental illness. The two kids operate at about the same emotional and behavioral level.
What I'm saying is, if your child has a behavioral disorder and they are stealing, don't assume they're "bad". They may not yet have developed the same moral reasoning as other kids their age. They may not yet comprehend how stealing affects other people. We may simply need to continue reinforcing norms and expectations until they finally get them.
David, M. (2017, December 4). Childhood ADHD and Stealing: What's Going on with Your Kid?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/parentingchildwithmentalillness/2017/12/childhood-adhd-and-stealing
Author: Melissa David
Anyone else understanding my worries, frustration? I'm not giving up!!!
Here's the question: I am getting from the tenor of the material on the internet that the professional advice is to affirm the child, remind him that these behaviours hurt, and cause harm to him, us and the world, of course, take him to Walmart (which we will do today) where he can make recompense (with our money and time), use consistent consequences. We have been doing all that. And occasionally doing things not recommended like yelling, which I did yesterday. It's getting worse, not better. I am shocked, ashamed and frankly hopeless. Most of all I am worried. In my work I see what happens to kids who keep on these kinds of trajectory. I cannot bear that being his life, and so, I am trying to discover what, at this juncture can I put in place to reasonably dissuade him from these kinds of behaviours.
Your last paragraph really hit home. My youngest son just turned 11 and he has ADHD. Until a few months ago ADHD mainly meant he was hyperactive, lacked focus, struggled in school and with reacting inappropriately to emotional situations. Since then his disability has escalated. He has developed an anxiety disorder where he was compulsively vomiting for a while, has had other medical issues related to his digestive track that I believe are triggered from anxiety and has even had a panic attack. He is seeing a really good child psychologist, and she explained that the vomiting is a psychosomatic symptom of him not expressing his emotions and bottling them up. He is getting a lot better on that front with therapy. However, lately he is getting into trouble more at school with making poor choices and yesterday I found a small amount of marijuana in his coat.
I was devastated and reacted in a crazed manner, yelling and crying, trying to get him to tell me what it was doing there. He was very remorseful and crying as well. After attempting to lie, he finally admitted that he stole it from his dad's house (I do not indulge in drugs or condone it). His dad is a heavy drinker as well (although he is not supposed to drink around our son), so I am not sure if that has anything to do with my son's behaviour?? Maybe the emotional trauma from having an alcoholic parent is taking its tole on a child who already faces so many challenges?? Because of his difficulties talking about his feelings I am worried he is holding back and the situation at his dad's is not healthy. He said he does not know why he stole it, and I know without a doubt that he is not doing drugs, but it is the scariest thing I have ever gone through as a parent. He told me he also stole a phone charger from a store.
I made him call his dad and tell him what he did which was extremely difficult for him, he feels so bad that his dad will no longer trust him. One of the emotions he has the hardest time dealing with is shame. His dad told me he hides the marijuana from him and he thought something was up the weekend before when it was moved. After my son and I calmed down, we talked about stealing and worked on a strategy for him to recognize what he is feeling when he takes something, how he can learn to stop himself when he feels that way.
I think his impulse control is very low and I am so worried about him. My younger brother is ADHD, and although the situation is different with my son because there are so many more resources these days to help parents, I am so scared my baby is going to end up like my brother. My brother is an alcoholic and drug addict. He can't hold down a job and flies off the handle all the time, so no one wants to be around him.
If it makes you feel any better, you are not alone. Just hang in there and keep doing what you are doing. I can think of two adults off the top of my head that I work with now that are ADHD and they are university educated and successful in their work. They openly talk about how they have learned ways to deal with their disabilities so they can have good lives. With love (sometimes tough love) and perseverance, I am praying our boys will be okay too!
We've discussed, punished and disciplined on many occasions but it doesn't seem to stop. Any advice will do, cause our next step is to take him to the police station to see if they can help scare him straight.
I'm Susan Traugh, another author at HealthyPlace.com. I, too, had problems with my then 13 year old bipolar daughter stealing from me. I began confronting her every time I discovered it. I didn't ask, I just said, "I know you took this from me. I'm not here to blame or shame you, but I need this to stop and want you to tell me what we must do to make that happen." In the beginning, she denied she'd done it. I simply said I knew she had and come talk to me when she could be honest. Soon she began to own up; later she would confess before I ever knew. Together, we worked out a plan where I would hide some things and we'd check other temptations together. We talked about how her stealing soothed some pain and found other things we could do together so we could replace an unacceptable soother for an acceptable one. Finally, my daughter came to me to confess a desire to steal, but what steps she'd taken to keep from doing it. It took us over a year, but stealing is no longer an issue in our family. I wish you luck with yours.
I have a 16 year old daughter she was diagnosed with ADHD when she was little. She would steal and then say but it was not me. She stole clothes from shops she was not caught but we did take everything back she took. I felt so ashamed. How can I help her. She also has no respect when she speaks to her stepfather. She thinks she's an adult and when we confront her she acts like a child. My husband does not know how to deal with her. He said she is going to end up in jail if this can't be stopped. PLEASE HELP.
I am dealing the similar with our son. Lately he started confessesing abt stealing & lying. Can you please how did you help your child to recognize the urges to urges to steal & what did you replace the stealing behavior with. That will be very helpful.