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 2022, November 27 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/parentingchildwithmentalillness/2017/12/childhood-adhd-and-stealing
Author: Melissa David
This article explains a lot! I've mentioned stealing food concerning 1 of my children recently diagnosed with ADHD and the psychiatrist looked past it. This child had been doing it for years. My other child that has been diagnosed with ADHD and conduct disorder is stealing money and toys. Recently I found items from class in his pockets. Because this child is a toddler and behind developmentally I always try to explain to him that we have to pay for items if we want them. This helps in the store but now I'm trying to deal with him taking items from people, including family members and teachers.
My son recently got banned from a local store for stealing. He just can't control the impulse. He wanted candy, and he took it. He cared about the rules, and he feels ashamed about the situation. That's what makes his behavior slightly different from conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is harder because kids with this disorder tend to know the rules but don't really care about them. Every kid can be so different. Good luck with the little ones!
Hello Melissa, I'm dealing with an 8 yr old that steals as well. Yesterday, he stole $160.00 from a small safe in his older sister room. We found out because he took the money to school and his teacher saw him playing with it today. This isn't the first time he's stolen but the stakes are getting higher. Food, candy and trinkets is one thing but cash from a closed place is another.
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.
Hi, LT! It's so hard. Sometimes, our kids with ADHD either don't understand the consequences, can't plan enough ahead to even consider consequences, or have other things like ODD going on where they really don't care about the consequences. I've learned, on my end, that it's far easier to try to prevent it than to punish it afterwards. It's easier emotionally for me, but with an 8 year old, he may not even be developmentally capable of responding to punishment afterward right now. I know it feels like the victims of the behavior get the worse end of the stick, but it may be that your daughter needs to put a combination on that safe so the 8 year old can't get to it, and you may need to keep an eye out to make sure nothing of value that you're concerned will get stolen is left in an easily accessible safe. We've locked and put an alarm on our pantry and refrigerator ourselves. When we put just a lock on them, he could still get in sometimes because our son is kind of wily. With the alarm, he knows we'll hear it and can at least plan that far ahead. He comes and asks us more often now, even when it's 4am or something ridiculous.
This article hit home for me. Especially the eating portion. May I ask what you used to lock up cabinets and the fridge? I can talk until I’m blue in the face about stealing/sneaking but nothing seems to register.
Hello Dawn, we used a chained door lock for our pantry and we don't leave much in the refrigerator that he can take. Unfortunately, we had to put a motion detector at the bottom of the stairs so if he attempts to come down stairs when he shouldn't (like when we are sleeping) a bell will ring. We can turn the alarm on and off. Once we put the alarm up, it shocked him a few times. Now he doesn't know if it's on or off in the morning so he doesn't try to sneak down.
Shocked, meaning alarmed it.
My child 15 years has permanently excluded for stealing £10 with two other boys In school.
Is that lawful. I am really upset he’s at home feeling a a failure 😞 a gifted child is now damaged. Please help
My grand daughter is 13 and was diagnosed with adhd when she entered kindergarden. She has been stealing from me for 2 years. It is usually make up. Over the Christmas vacation she spent 3 nights with me. I have taken all make up from my bathroom and this time she to bath and body sprays (2 bottles). He parents don't seem to understand how to deal with this problem. She is punished . Recently her parents went thru a nasty divorce but the stealing has been going on for a number of years. At least 5 yrs. How can I help her. I have never approached her when I have found items missing and found she had them.
Hi, Sylvia! This can be hard, and I can’t pretend to know how the dynamics in a relationship work when you’re a grandparent vs a parent. As a parent, though, I’d confront her about it. She may lie or she may not, but your granddaughter needs to know that you notice and that the stealing affects you. It’s taken awhile, but my son is now at the point that, yes, he still steals, but when we confront him, he immediately expressed remorse and returns it (if it wasn’t food he already ate). Maybe your granddaughter will get to that point, too!
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.
Susan, thank you so much. Your reply has given me hope and a strategy to implement with my 10 year old son. Thank you so much.
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.