So, my 9 yo step sons has a big issue with stealing. The issue is that it's not stealing money, or for gain. A lot of the time, he just takes things, just so that he can have it.

He takes something, and then when he realizes what he's done (i.e. steal) he hides it, and then never brings it out again in hopes of never being caught out for stealing. Sometimes he even entirely forgets about it, depending on how long it's been since he took it, and only remembers it when we find it. Some of the things he's taken:

  • a (dead) digital camera from his Grandfather, which was ultimately useless, so the only issue there was the stealing. He would have been happily given it to play with if he'd just asked.
  • some lens-less prop glasses from his 7 yo brother, because they were bright and shiny, but again, nothing major. They had been given to his brother as part of a fundraising event for free.
  • a calculator from his friend at school because he wanted one - the reason was "it was on the school list, and we never got one". I found this again in his possession still, three times after asking to return it.
  • a Rubik's cube that he (apparently) found in a bush - it was filled with dirt, didn't turn, and half the stickers were missing. He just "wanted to see if he could solve it". Again, found multiple times after being told to get rid of it.
  • a single block from his brother's building blocks because it was the same colour as a Minecraft diamond, and wanted to use it to "make a diamond sword".
  • Pens/markers on a regular basis, simply because they are not allowed them unsupervised (due to graffiti issues).

However, the worst thing we found was two Epipens, that he had taken from his Grandmother. His Grandmother is a larger lady, so the dosage she needs would be lethal if he had decided to do anything with them. We don't know exactly how long he had them for, but this was a very scary experience. Thankfully, he admitted to never having opened them. They looked like markers, he had found them in the fridge, but likely realized what he'd done and just hidden them, than try to play with them. We explained that this behavior was becoming unsafe - if he had played with them, he would end up in hospital (keeping things simple for his young mind).

This has warranted a reaction from us, not out of anger, but fear for his safety, along the lines of "behave like a criminal, and get treated like a criminal". We are going to be checking him for any items that he has taken, when leaving anywhere; the house, a friend/family's place, etc. to ensure he has not taken anything. We have told him we will be doing this, and that we do not trust him, because we do not trust him to make safe decisions.

He also does have some issues with lying; either by telling flat out lies, or only half-truths to avoid getting in trouble. We have explained (and continue to explain) that telling the truth is always better than lying, regardless of what you've done - the whole "two wrongs don't make a right" mentality, and the truth is coming out more, but he still gets caught up sometimes.

His attempts to hide things are not overly elaborate either, He either hides them in his old schoolbag which we use to carry extra clothes etc. for sleepovers, or in his dirty clothes hamper, or under his pillow. His most elaborate attempt to hide something was a pen, that he had stored between some of the books on his shelf.

Now, my issue is that I want to check to make sure that he is not trying to hide things, but not give him any ideas on where he could hide things. He is a smart boy, but not exactly intelligent. That is, he can recite any degree of information he is told, read or heard, but when told conflicting information, he just gets puzzled, and doesn't try and figure out which information is correct. E.g. a friend in his class told him that lightning can only travel up and down (from the clouds to the ground), but he read in a book that lightning connects between two points anywhere, and he's seen lightning go across the sky and never touch the ground, but he cannot determine which is true.

In this same way, I don't want to give him any ideas that he can hide things anywhere, other than maybe in his pockets, his bag, or somewhere in his room, by checking other places where he might hide things. For example, one friend suggested (along the lines of "behave like a criminal, get treated like one") to learn the full "pat down" technique. I don't want to do this because it might give him ideas.

What should/can I do to ensure that he understands that I am checking everywhere (as far as he is concerned), without giving him ideas on where he might be able to hide things, while at the same time, checking places that he might use, on the occasion that he might come up with ideas?

I have looked at some other answers, and we have been going through the steps outlined in this answer to help him understand why his behavior is wrong. However at this point I believe the behavior is getting to a point of safety, not morality.

One of the reasons I believe it to be kleptomania, rather than just childish greediness, is because his biological father was physically abusive to him at a young age. From what I've been told by his mother, if the father was in a bad mood, any "excessive noise" from the kids would send him into a rage, often needing her to step in and take the physical abuse so that the children wouldn't be physically harmed. However, as a side effect of this, my 9 yo may have developed some bad coping habits, such as taking things so that he could be happy in this environment.

Perhaps, to his young mind, he didn't understand what he was doing wrong, so he did something else to cheer himself up, and was never punished for it at the time (the behavior is very similar to the behavior in this question). Over the past few years after they left the father, his mother became aware of the behavior and did begin to reprimand it, but I'm not sure of the details; they are not yet comfortable/have not yet overcome the experiences, so I may be wrong.

They do not see, nor hear from the father, and have not for at least 4 years.

  • Re: Your bolded question: why don't you check when he's not around? He won't see you, so you won't give him ideas. If he's home, maybe have him sit with his mother? He will know you are checking, and he won't see it. If he manages to keep some things hidden, he's probably smarter than you think. Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 4:31

2 Answers 2


This is bordering on a frame challenge, but in the long run I am not sure the idea of "behave like a criminal, get treated like one" in parenting has any merit. He may very well take from this that he is fundamentally flawed or untrustworthy, and take an attitude of "if I'm going to be considered a thief anyway, why not take what I want?"

This kind of incredibly petty theft in kids is more an issue of impulse control than greed or malice, and as long as 'the kid who steals stuff' doesn't become a big part of his self image, most kids outgrow it or find other coping skills to help overcome the immature emotional impulse of 'see a cool thing, take the thing!' So, telling him he's untrustworthy and that you're doing routine contraband checks of his room is potentially very counter productive, as it could lead to deeper shame and deeply internalizing that he is The One Who Steals. In other words it will increase his stress, and could make him lean even more heavily on this negative coping skill.

At the same time, you can't let the behavior go unchallenged. You might find a more effective and peaceful resolution by framing it more like this: "You're having trouble remembering that we don't take other people's things, and I'm going to help you."

Before you leave a friend or relative's house, ask him to check his pockets and bag to make sure he doesn't have anything that doesn't belong to him. If he surrenders something, praise him for remembering that we don't take things without asking, and treat it as a genuine accident. Try to do this with some discretion so he isn't unduly embarrassed especially in front of peers.

If after this you do still find stolen items making their way into his possession, discipline is appropriate. This could take the form of returning the item with an apology, and if feasible taking on an age appropriate gesture to 'make it right' with the person stolen from, such as weeding grandma's garden, or letting brother choose the film on family movie night. This is a realistic way to learn the natural consequences of stealing: it breaks your relationship with others and is embarrassing when they find out. It also shows how an apology and making an effort to repair can mend those relationships and restore trust.

When kids have experienced abusive trauma, punishments are not typically effective, because their worldview is that pain and punishment are unpredictable things that adults will do to them at a whim for no apparent reason, or are due them because the child is 'just bad'. They are generally less likely to connect their behavior to the penalty. Even if he knows rationally that it's wrong to steal, he may still feel that he needs to take things into his own hands to survive (emotionally perhaps, if not physically).

To reduce harmful coping behaviors, treat the underlying trauma. That probably includes therapy, but definitely requires making the child feel worthy, unconditionally loved, safe and cared for. A therapist may also be able to help the child with replacing negative survival strategies like stealing with healthy coping and emotional regulating techniques.


Take him to see a child psychologist.

Kleptomania is a psychological condition, and none on here is qualified to provide you with the medical advice regarding treatment plans. So, I'd just take them to a child psychologist for a diagnosis and to work out a treatment plan.

Obviously, work out an age-appropriate explanation for why you're taking him to see the brain doctor, of course.

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