There was once a woman, who had lost her husband of eight years to lung cancer. By the time he was cremated, she found herself eighty thousand dollars in depth with four children to raise, and a twenty-one thousand dollar per year income, before taxes. Her son was currently on probation for breaking into another student's locker at school and stealing an iPod and she needed help in addressing his increasingly out of control habit of taking things that did not belong to him. So what's the purpose of this story? Well here's the real story, she felt so guilty about his being on probation, that she differed payment of their electric bill to buy him an iPod. She did not want him to feel "left out" since most of his peers already had iPods.
This leads to the first step towards putting an end to your teenagers' habitual stealing:
Putting an end to your issues of entitlement as a parent.
Yes, it starts with parents. If you feel guilty that you cannot afford what most kids are using, wearing or even driving, that's okay. However you need to put things in perspective, are you getting the basic needs of your teen met? You know, food, water, shelter, clothing, tender loving care? If you answered yes to all those questions, then you should replace your feelings of guilt with acceptance. Acceptance that you cannot provide your teen with everything you would like to.
A sense of guilt over not being able to afford certain things for your teen can lead to being reactive, if not adequately addressed. Most parents who are reactive to their difficult feelings will respond by taking an unnecessary action to relive themselves of the guilt. Case in point will be the story from the first paragraph. Whatever lessons her son was to learn from being on probation was negated by her reinforcement that he was entitled to an iPod, whether she could afford it or otherwise. Just because every kid in school has an iPod, doesn't mean that her son is entitled to it, regardless of how many apple commercials her and her son where exposed to.
A false sense of entitlement can lead to profound cognitive impairment, as it can cause a person's judgment to be so skewed that they routinely make decisions based on irrational beliefs. The teen used as an example in the first paragraph, later on would admit his motivation for stealing was because he felt so cheated out, over not being able to have an iPod. Even though he never owned one, nor was iPod essential for his wellbeing. Parents want the best for their children, however it is important to note that once you get their basic physical and emotional needs met, your children are entitled to nothing else. For richer or for poorer, it is important that parents become conscientious about any vicarious issues of entitlement they may have in regards to their teenager's well being.
Return all stolen items.
Junior brings home an item, which you know neither you nor a relative bought for him, find out where it came from. Most likely you are going to be entertaining a couple of lies, so inform your dear teen that you would both be going to school tomorrow and having a chat with the principal, with your sole purpose to return the item to its rightful owner.
This is a very powerful and controversial technique, as embarrassment and shame are two of many difficult feelings your teen will be experiencing. However if not you, who will address the situation? A police officer? A judge? It is important that once you follow up with returning the item to it's rightful owner, that you sit down and process both you and your teenager's thoughts and feelings together about the incident.
Keep Life Simple.
Besides having a false sense of entitlement, most youths who steal have experienced a strong sense of perceived abandonment and rejection. One could argue that their habitual stealing could be a way to compensate for a lack of connection with others, but that's for another post.
Keeping it simple means that once privileges have being suspended following another incident of theft, keep the privileges or extras out of the teenager's life until further notice. Instead work on replacing the use of certain privileges with one on one time and family time. So a confiscated play station can be substituted by family games. Internet time can be substituted by reviewing your teenager's course schedule and homework. Keeping life simply provides for an opportunity to reconnect with your teen emotionally and helping them fill in the void in their spirit, which they have unsuccessfully tried to fill through frivolous stuff. This process will also call for micro managing your teenager's possessions, from an inventory of his clothing and personal belongings, to his weekly allowance. Your teen will learn quickly that returning home with items that do not belong to him will be noticed.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions, a private professional counseling practice.