As a parent, it can be shocking to find out that your teen has shoplifted. After all, you raised your child to know the difference between right and wrong. Don’t they remember all the times you had them return their friends’ toys after playdates? You explained countless times that taking things that don’t belong to them isn’t right. So why do teenagers shoplift?
Many parents of teens caught stealing are surprised to learn that shoplifting is relatively common. For some adolescents, it’s a rite of passage—even for those raised with strong morals and values. Parents who discover that their teen has been caught shoplifting may fear their child could be embarking on a life of crime. While that isn’t usually the case, shoplifting is an infraction that parents must address head on.
- About 25 percent of juveniles admit to having shoplifted.
- Teens steal for a variety of reasons, such as poor impulse control, peer pressure, a need for attention, and mental health conditions.
- Teenagers charged with shoplifting may have difficulty gaining acceptance at college, building credit, or securing future employment.
- It’s important for parents of teenage shoplifters to understand what prompted their child’s behavior and to enforce appropriate consequences.
How Many Teens Shoplift?
The notion that shoplifting is only committed by a small subset of adolescents is inaccurate. According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, shoplifting is one of the most frequently committed crimes.
Approximately a quarter of shoplifters are juveniles. One in four adolescents between the ages of 12 to 16 has shoplifted.
In addition, more than 15 percent of high school students report a history of stealing for a variety of reasons, according to one study.
What Happens If a Teen Is Caught Stealing?
Many things can occur after a child has been caught stealing. If the store owner hasn’t reached out to the authorities, the family may be able to work it out privately. If they have called the police, however, they’re likely to press charges.
Doing so initiates the legal process. From that point on, the state’s juvenile system will take over the teen’s case.
The criminal consequences of the offense depend on the value of the goods stolen. If it’s a minor, first-time offense, the juvenile court may release the teen and order them to pay the store owner restitution until they clear the debt.
In more serious cases, a teen may be ordered to undergo six months of probation in the form of volunteering, community service, or maintaining good grades. If the teen violates the terms of the probation, the court may impose more severe penalties, like time in a juvenile detention center.
Shoplifting may seem like no big deal to some kids. However, the act could have long-term consequences. A shoplifting conviction could prevent a teen from college acceptance, building credit, or future employment.
If your teen is caught and the police are brought in, seek out professional help. A criminal defense attorney experienced in juvenile misdemeanor cases can advocate for your teen so that the criminal charges don’t derail your child’s life.
10 Psychological Reasons for Stealing as a Teen
If your teen is wearing stylish clothes you don’t recognize, using electronic devices you didn’t purchase, or giving friends expensive gifts they can’t afford, they might be shoplifting. So do teens shoplift just because they can’t afford the items they want?
The reasons why teens shoplift are usually more complicated than that. What parents should understand is that the triggers are often rooted in adolescent psychology. Some of the most common reasons kids steal are:
- Peer pressure: Teens often steal from stores to prove to their friends that they’re “cool.” Wanting to belong, teens can be dared or persuaded to shoplift. The need to fit in and impress their peers can overshadow their better judgment.
- Poor impulse control: The prefrontal cortex, which controls reasoning and self-regulation, is still under construction in teens. Because their brains are still developing, teens are less apt to think about consequences before shoplifting.
- To test authority: During this stage of self-exploration, teenagers are apt to rebel against their parents and societal rules. Pushing boundaries and testing limits are common reasons that teens shoplift. Engaging in risky behaviors and challenging authority are part of the maturing process.
- For thrills: Bored and looking for excitement, some teens steal for the dopamine rush. They may not need or even want the stolen item. The high of getting away with stealing causes some teen shoplifters to become repeat offenders. Shoplifting can be a kind of addiction, which is known as kleptomania.
- To distract from painful emotions: Hormonal changes can produce moodiness in teens and a range of heightened emotions. To distract themselves from the intensity of what they’re feeling (such as anger, sadness, or grief), some teens steal.
- A cry for help: Some teens may steal as a way to get attention. Feeling neglected at home or jealous of the attention a sibling receives, some kids shoplift to pull parents’ focus to them. They want to be heard and loved, and shoplifting is their way of saying, “Pay attention to me!”
- A behavioral or mental health disorder: Kids with behavioral disorders like Oppositional Defiant Disorder exhibit disruptive behavior and have problems following rules, which could lead to shoplifting. One study found an association between shoplifting and borderline personality disorder. Stealing can also be a symptom of other mental health disorders, like bipolar disorder, severe depression, or anxiety.
- Neurodivergence: Teens whose brains work differently, like those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD, often have behavioral and impulse-control challenges that lead them to speak and act without thinking. One study found that kids with a history of stealing were more likely to be diagnosed with ASD or ADHD.
- Past trauma: The same study found that young people with ASD or ADHD, coupled with a history of abuse, were even more likely to have a history of shoplifting. This finding echoes the work of Will Cupchik, a researcher and clinician who wrote Why Honest People Shoplift or Commit Other Acts of Theft. Cupchik found that many atypical theft offenders shoplifted in reaction to prior trauma. He theorized it was a form of compensation for having endured an unfair loss.
- Kleptomania: If a child is still shoplifting at 15 or older, it may mean they’re suffering from a conduct disorder called kleptomania. Beginning in late adolescence, kleptomania seems to be more prevalent among females. It’s a rare disorder that renders sufferers unable to resist the compulsion to steal items they don’t need.
What Happens If a Teen Is Caught Stealing?
Many things can occur after a child has been caught stealing. If the store owner hasn’t reached out to the authorities, the family may be able to work it out privately. If they have called the police, however, they’re likely to press charges. Doing so initiates the legal process. From that point on, the state’s juvenile system will take over the teen’s case.
The criminal consequences of the offense depend on the value of the goods stolen. If it’s a minor, first-time offense, the juvenile court may release the teen and order them to pay the store owner restitution until they clear the debt. In more serious cases, a teen may be ordered to undergo six months of probation in the form of volunteering, community service, or maintaining good grades. If the teen violates the terms of the probation, the court may impose more severe penalties, like time in a juvenile detention center.
Shoplifting may seem like no big deal to some kids. However, the act could have long-term consequences. A shoplifting conviction could prevent a teen from college acceptance, building credit, or future employment. If your teen is caught and the police are brought in, seek out professional help. A criminal defense attorney experienced in juvenile misdemeanor cases can advocate for your teen so that the criminal charges don’t derail your child’s life.
How to Deal with Teenage Shoplifting
Shoplifting is a common offense, but that doesn’t mean the act should minimized. Parents of kids caught stealing need to take it seriously, as it may mean that a teen needs mental health help. Moreover, parents must stress to children that stealing can lead to serious consequences. Here are some of the best ways to deal with shoplifting.
Engaging in yelling and name-calling when your teen does something wrong won’t help. And it isn’t likely to change their behavior. On the contrary, becoming enraged, hurling threats, and enforcing severe punishments will only make kids fearful and unwilling to listen to you. Instead, stay calm and talk to your teen about respect for people and their property. If this is your teen’s first offense, ask what prompted their behavior and listen closely. Don’t jump into lecture mode.
If you’re at your wits’ end because your teen has been caught shoplifting numerous times, try to keep your cool. Explain that you won’t be able to protect them if or when the courts take over. Remind them that they’re putting themselves at risk. Make sure they know that one way or another, they’re going to be held accountable.
Let Natural Consequences Unfold—or Set your Own
For most teens, simply getting caught in a clear case of moral turpitude acts as a deterrent. If the store owner is pressing charges, the resulting embarrassment, discomfort, and potential legal issues will hopefully dissuade your teen from any future shoplifting. If the store owner isn’t pressing charges, it’s your job to discipline your teen and set age-appropriate consequences for the behavior.
You might ground them for a period of time, require that they pay for the stolen property, or take away privileges like a cell phone, computer, or weekly allowance. Parents who don’t create consequences send an indirect message that they’ll tolerate bad behavior.
Dig into Their Motivation
While talking to your teen, find out what prompted them to shoplift. Ask what they were thinking. Were their friends involved? Did they coax them to steal? Did they steal something they were ashamed to ask you for? Did they not have enough money to purchase something they really wanted? Are they concerned about money problems in the household and don’t want to be a burden? Listen with compassion. You might be surprised by what your teen reveals.
The most important aspect of teenage shoplifting is the internal experience and/or external trigger that preceded it. Help your teen examine their justifications and excuses for shoplifting. This way, you not only help them learn about themselves, you also increase the chances that they won’t repeat the offense.
Model the Behavior You Want to See
If you want your teen to be honest and respect other people’s property, do the same. Don’t go into your teen’s room and rummage through their drawers, looking for evidence of wrongdoing. Don’t borrow their clothing or sports equipment without asking. And don’t make up stories when they ask a straightforward question that has a straightforward answer.
Furthermore, think about how you interact with people outside the home. How do you treat servers and salespeople? Areyou kind to strangers? The more respectful you are of others and their things, the more likely it is that your child will follow your lead. Model the values you want your child to possess.
Spend More Time Together
You child may be engaging in typical adolescent risky behavior, but they might also be hungering for more of your time and attention. It’s easy to get caught up in your laundry list of to-dos and lose sight of what’s most important—your relationship with your family. Make an effort to check in more often. After school, at the dinner table, or before bed, make sure you reach out each day and ask how your child is doing.
Along with checking in daily, make time to do things you both enjoy. Play a board game, cook a meal together, or take a hike. You might even schedule an outing, like a visit to a local museum or planetarium. Spending one-on-one time with your child makes them feel special and fortifies your bond. Researchers find that parental support, secure child-to-parent attachment, and ongoing communication can mediate a teenager’s risky behaviors.
Enlist Mental Health Support
If your teen has been caught shoplifting on several occasions—or if you notice other red flags in your child’s behavior—don’t chalk up shoplifting to an adolescent phase. Don’t rationalize the act or make excuses for it. Instead, schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.
A trained counselor or therapist can help your teen understand what’s causing them to shoplift and how to prevent the behavior from occurring. Treatment options can include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, support groups, psychotropic medications, and 12-step programs.
Teen Treatment at Newport Academy
At Newport Academy, we realize that transgressions like shoplifting can be signs of underlying issues that teens and their families may not even be aware of. Our residential and outpatient programs support adolescents ages 12–18 to replace maladaptive teenage behavior with healthy coping strategies. Our clinical team also supports teens to process unresolved trauma that may be at the root of shoplifting and other risky behaviors.
The foundation of our treatment model is Attachment-Based Family Therapy, which helps teens and parents strengthen their communication skills. It also rebuilds the trust that a shoplifting offense may have eroded. Each teen’s treatment plan also includes experiential modalities like Adventure Therapy and Mixed Martial Arts, which allow teens to work out their aggression and build self-esteem in safe and productive ways.
Contact us today to schedule a mental health assessment at no charge and learn more about our individually tailored treatment plans.
Frequently Asked Questions
What might cause a child to steal and lie?
There are many reasons a teen shoplifts. Some teens steal to rebel against authority or respond to peer pressure. Others may be suffering from a mental health disorder or simply longing for parental attention.
What mental health disorders can lead to shoplifting?
The symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, severe depression, and anxiety can cause some teens to shoplift.
What happens to a 15-year-old caught stealing?
It depends on whether the police are notified. If they aren’t, parents should be able to work out the matter with the store owner. If the police are called and it’s a first-time offense, the teen may be ordered to pay restitution. If it’s a repeat offense, probation or time in a juvenile detention center are possible consequences.
How do I deal with my child shoplifting?
Don’t overreact. Find out why they shoplifted. Listen closely. Remind them you won’t be able to protect them if the matter goes to court. Then enforce age-appropriate consequences.
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