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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Kleptomanic Tendency

Q. My 3-year-old daughter is starting to steal objects. She has taken something from a flea market and a grocery store. Everything that I can find on kleptomania assures me that she probably does not have this problem, but how can I teach a preschooler that stealing is wrong when she just doesn't seem to understand?

A. I discussed your question with Dr. Diane P. Toby, an expert in child psychology. Here is the gist of her response, with which I agree: "Given the egocentricity and impulsivity of a three year old (what's mine is mine, what's yours is mine) it is within the normal range for a three year old to take things from other kids, and even from stores. It is only when you have intervened with consistent consequences (like making the child give the toy/food item back) for several weeks or months, and the child still takes from stores, that it becomes an issue worth evaluating further.

Then, it becomes a question of: why isn't this child listening to his parents? Parents need to teach the child that nothing is taken home without paying money for it. The parent can buy the child a cash register, play money, and fake groceries (and other items) and practice exchanging money for objects at home [thereby] teaching the child that this is what must be done in order to take any object home from a store. The parents need to teach this child that if she takes something from a store, she has to return it to the store or (if it is lost) pay for it.

Parents should then sit down with the child and tell the child if [the stealing] happens again, the child is going to get a consequence. Parents need to think of a consequence that is relevant to the child--such as taking the child's favorite TV show away that day. Parents also need, during this talk with the child, to tell the child that if she ever takes anything again, they will take her right back to the cashier and have her give back the toy and say she is sorry she took it. A firm, calm, but not punitive, tone of voice should be used.

In addition to this educational component, the child should be rewarded for NOT taking anything from a store. The parents need to make a big deal out of the child's good behavior--e.g., "Look, you are a big girl now, you have learned that it is wrong to take what is not yours!" If the parents do this consistently--and I mean BOTH parents (not just the mother), and CONSISTENTLY (they provide a consequence every time the child does it for a period of at least two months) and the child still steals consistently after this time period, I would suggest getting the child evaluated by a mental health professional such as a child psychiatrist, psychologist, etc.

While kleptomania is not an appropriate diagnosis, I would want the professional to do a thorough medical, cognitive and social/emotional evaluation on the child, to see if there are any deficits in these areas that are contributing to the child's problems. I would also want there to be a good assessment of family dynamics. The professional should observe the child with the family; not simply alone. If there are other caretakers involved such as grandparents, nannies, friends, etc. then questions should be asked about whether those other caretakers are following through with the consequences set by the parents."

I would simply add this to Dr. Toby's excellent advice: keep in mind that this sort of gentle enforcement of rules will not work overnight--it takes a lot of repetition and patience! But assuming your daughter is psychologically and developmentally normal and healthy in other respects, she stands a good chance of outgrowing this behavior if you manage it effectively now.

January 2003

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