Friday, July 13, 2012

Impulsive Stealing: An ADD/ ADHD Child Problem?

by John and Diane. 

All kids might have the urge or impulse to steal once in a while during an average childhood. We have all done it as kids, stolen a piece of gum from the bin at the grocery store, or a quarter from the table.  With some kids though the impulse to steal is more compelling… indeed, a compulsion that is irresistible.  Foster parents deal with these children frequently, as do other parents who have kids with various impulse control diagnosis.

The most likely children to have trouble with impulsive stealing are kids with ADD and ADHD.  It’s not that they are bad kids; it’s their Impulsivity that is the crux of the problem.

The main thing to remember about impulsive stealing with your ADD or ADHD kids is that there is rarely any understanding that what they are doing is wrong.
What the impulsive stealing child thinks is that he or she needs something that he finds in a store or someone’s home and he takes it. In his mind, he has done nothing wrong.

Sometimes they will pick something up and hold it, or put it in their pocket and walk out the door and forget about it.  Stealing it absentmindedly.

They never learned the basic lesson of “don’t touch things that don’t belong to you” so they hold and touch everything. In their minds, when they touch or hold something, they take ownership of it.

Later, if  impulsive stealing goes unchecked, kids will be known to steal something and throw it away. This happens when the child becomes conscious of guilt. This usually starts when a caregiver begins working on the issue and the child is aware they are doing something wrong and they don’t want to get caught, but yet can’t resist the impulse to steal.

So, the older the child is, the longer the cycle has been happening, the harder it is to break.
I have taken some classes on “kids and stealing” and they have said, “you can’t stop it.” You just have to protect the child from doing it. Not good news, now is it?
The advice was to put the child in a shopping cart until they become too big for the cart or leave them in the car. Not shopping with the kids or taking them to friend’s homes isn’t really an option for most of us… so I had to come up with a better solution.


Since “greater minds” didn’t really offer me a solution that worked in the real world, I came up with my own. It is basically an exposure-behavioral modification approach that re-educates the child while exposing them to temptation under supervision. Much like you might deal with a phobia.

Look with Your Eyes, Not Your Hands

 I would bring the kids to a store just to work with them, not to do my own shopping.  I taught them the basic rule of  “looking is done with your eyes not your hands” that most kids learn and understand early on.  

Every time their hands would go to touch something I would ask, “what are you doing?”
They would say “I’m looking at that” and I would answer with “your eyes, not your hands, you take things with you hands you look with your eyes.” 
Conversely, you could also ask, “are you going to buy that thing and do you have enough money to buy it?”
 If the answer is “yes” then you can work on the child’s math skills and if he or she doesn’t have enough money then I always answer, “if you can’t afford it, you don’t touch it.”

After a time I found that the child would begin to learn what things they are allowed to pick up and what they were not allowed to pick up and touch. It took time and patience, but after a while, it worked. 

Dealing with Home Visits or Play Dates

Now you’re at someone’s home and your child has gone off to play with his or her child. What do you do? This is a hard one.   I will tell my close friends or family member that I will pat the child down before we leave and this usually gets a laugh or two but it is a necessity and it is something the child agrees to ahead of time as he is aware of his impulse to steal and lie. 

Before we leave I pat the child down in a side room or entryway out of view of others to protect the child’s right to privacy.

Of course, the kids may have snuck something out to the car while I wasn’t looking, so I advise my host to let me know if they are missing anything later, and I may find something in a pants pocket or in the car later.  One never knows…

The “I Forgive You Box”

What about the child who throws it away? This is an easy one. You have a box in the house labeled The I Forgive You Box.  

If they steal an item, and know they did wrong, instead of hiding it or throwing it away, they put it in the box.  The box is placed in a private spot and there will be no consequences for the stealing, but the family as a group will discuss the contents of the box at a later time. This gives the child a way out, and usually leads the child to talk about the stealing without fear of consequences, which allows room for growth. 

If parents or siblings find stolen items, there will still be a consequence for the stealing.  The child who steals will lose their allowance or chore money or whatever consequence you have indicated on your House Rules and Consequences sheets. 
In one case, I had a child take something from another child, so I let that child (Victim) go in to his room (Perpetrator) and take something of his but not let the stealing child know what it was.  

This worked great.  Now “the perp.” was wondering and worrying about what was taken and he spent a lot more time thinking about what happened.  Later, I asked him how it made him feel when he had something taken from him and it opened a longer discussion about stealing, making him more empathetic to his “victims.”

So, although impulsive stealing is by no means an easy habit to break in ADD, other foster, adopted of bio kids, it is not impossible, so don’t be discouraged by naysayers and “experts” in the field. It seems to be an issue that can ebb and flow in a child’s life like many issues foster kids deal with. It can also be a reaction to stress or a delayed symptomology of abuse or neglect, but like most issues with impulsive kids, it takes re-training and patience to break through.

Coming Soon: Kids Who Steal out of Need and Kids Who Steal to Get Even



  1. Can I tell you - I just love your posts! They give me so much hope and ideas to try with my kiddos who have "unusual" behaviors stemming from their past traumas or just poor parenting that can really get under my skin.

  2. Thank you So Much. And we appreciate so much you listing our feed on your blog. We get a lot of viewers from your page as we so appreciate being able to network with you (we have your link on ours as well and enjoy reading your blog too!)Some day if I can figure out how to do that "feed thing" I will have to try that! lol... In any case, glad to offer help where we can and friendship at the very least!
    John and Diane FPR

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