Childhood ADHD and Stealing: What's Going on with Your Kid?
It's common for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to steal from family members and friends. Knowing ADHD is probably behind a child's stealing behavior doesn't make it less frustrating, of course, nor less scary. After all, outside our homes, stealing is illegal. Parents of children with mental illnesses already worry enough about our kids ending up in the legal system. It's important, then, to figure out what might be causing our children with ADHD to steal.
Four Reasons Your Child with ADHD Might Steal
Stealing is so common in children with ADHD that many wonder if stealing is a symptom of ADHD. There are four reasons why your child with ADHD is stealing. Knowing them can help you be a better parent.
1. Your Child with ADHD May Steal to Meet Personal Needs
Some children might find certain items comforting so they take them. Some may be bored and grab the first thing to occupy them. For my son, he's usually hungry. ADHD medications commonly cause decreased appetite. While on meds during the day, my son eats practically nothing. Then, at night, he becomes ravenous. If your child has disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) like mine, nothing triggers an outburst better than being "hangry".
My family has a years-long habit now of leaving out healthy snacks while locking our cabinets and fridge at night. Otherwise, my son steals things. Once, when he was little, he stole an entire cake and hid it under his bed. He rarely understands why we get upset, arguing that he was just hungry and needed food.
2. Child May Lack Impulse Control or Have Lowered Executive Functioning
I mentioned this when discussing childhood ADHD and lying, but symptoms of ADHD include lack of impulse control and poor executive functioning. For instance, when my son sees money lying around at home, he'll take it. He considers the immediate reward of having money to buy candy. He does not think past the candy-buying to the point where he gets in trouble for stealing.
So far, this behavior is limited to our home. We ground him when it happens, but the best we can do to prevent it is to remove the opportunity. When he's older, with better-developed executive functioning, we may change our response. For now, we just make sure money isn't lying around.
3. Conduct Disorders Cause Kids with ADHD to Steal
While it's not the case for my son, conduct disorder may be at play in some kids with ADHD, DMDD, or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Conduct disorder is defined as a pattern of behaviors that violate the basic rights of others. Age-appropriate norms are purposely violated. Children with this disorder may enjoy upsetting people and breaking rules. They typically know right from wrong.
This is much different than simply lacking impulse control or not anticipating consequences. If you suspect your child has conduct disorder, consult your pediatrician immediately.
4. Remember Your Child's Stage of Development Is Not the Same as His Peers
Finally, for some kids, they haven't reached the developmental stage in which they understand the moral implications of stealing. Toddlers, for instance, steal all the time. We don't get offended. We may not even call it stealing. As parents, we simply tell them it's "not nice" and make them give back the item they took.
Part of the definition of mental illness is that symptoms affect "normal" development. It's hard, as a parent of a child with mental illness, then, to know if our kids' behaviors are typical or not. A provider once told me I should expect my son to always be about three years behind his peers in behavioral and emotional control. I don't know if this is scientifically valid, but it does seem to be the case. My daughter is three years younger than my son. She does not have a mental illness. The two kids operate at about the same emotional and behavioral level.
What I'm saying is, if your child has a behavioral disorder and they are stealing, don't assume they're "bad". They may not yet have developed the same moral reasoning as other kids their age. They may not yet comprehend how stealing affects other people. We may simply need to continue reinforcing norms and expectations until they finally get them.
David, M. (2017, December 4). Childhood ADHD and Stealing: What's Going on with Your Kid?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/parentingchildwithmentalillness/2017/12/childhood-adhd-and-stealing
Author: Melissa David
My 12 year old son has a real bad stealing and lying problem. I thought he was getting better but since school has been out due to Covid19, he's lying frequently. His cousins have lived with us for over 4 years. He just stole his cousin's Bluetooth headphones saying he got them from a friend, when there is no way! I tried to see the possibility that he was telling the truth. He now claims he 'thought' he got them from his friend because they were on his (my son's) bed so he assumed they were his. The thing is, he doesn't insist that he's telling the truth like someone would generally do if they were upset someone didn't believe them. It's like he doesn't even care. He just keeps up with the inconsistent story.
I have a nephew who is now 13yoa, has been in my custody since he was 16mos. Unfortunately, I didn't know he had ADHD, until he was 8yoa. I already had two teenage girls, and figured his behavior had to do with him being an over active boy. I had to give him up when he was 8yoa, cause he kept running away, stealing neighbors properties off their yard and trying to set the community we live in on fire. I was forced to give him up and just recently got him after 3 years, and still portray some of the behaviors, mainly lying, stealing and getting suspended in school. I am over it, I figure he just going to get worst as he gets older. On top of that, I am raisings my 4 yoa who is being exposed to such behaviors. I am considering to see if his mom will take him or back or foster care. Any thoughts would be helpful.
All these stories sound all too familiar and cannot sympathize enough. My 8 yr old step son has ADHD and possible ODD. I won't sit here and retell you stealing stories nor the endless battles we have with him for the simplest things. I will tell you what is working. We recently bought cameras and placed one directly pointing at his bed. We have been battling late night grazing and stealing for far too long and we finally decided we had enough. Our pantry is locked and also has surveillance. We often feel like we are prisoners in our own home because its endless with him. Since we put cameras up he no longer even attempts to get up. He tells us that his anxiety is less at night because he feels that theres always someone in the room with him. (two way audio to talk to him and calm him down at bedtime) If you are reading this and think it's too harsh or drastic. We have tried everything else..from setting flour to see footsteps in the am to staying in his room until he falls asleep. He would wait for the last bit of rattling from the masterbed to tell him that it was his opportunity to start a party while we were asleep. His psychiatrist said that it could be ritualistic at this point( OCD). He is on meds and eventhough it helps it doesn't last long. All in all, hang in there parents. Consistency is key at home. Thank you all for sharing.
That was so unhelpful and so frustrating. Though it was nice to read that I'm not alone. Locking up everything you have and not leaving anything laying around is not really helpful. Nor does it solve the problem because it will extend out of the home in any area they feel comfortable. I'm sorry if I'm being negative, I'm just dying inside. I have ADHD but coupled with my Anxiety and my own conformist mindset steeling is not something I've dealt with. My almost teen says she didn't steal but always has a fairly believable (but not quite) story of why she has something she shouldn't. Usually, somebody else stole it and she's in the process of returning it. Sometimes it's the simple I wanted it and nobody would mind (taking from her sisters). Or "I wanted to buy a snack at school." My other half swears we just need to use harsher and harsher consequences till she gets it. I'm lost because I don't think that's the answer but don't know what the answer is.
My daughter is 7 and I always get the same response, I wanted it and they told me they didn't want it or didn't mind. So frustrating. She was bringing new stuff home in her bookbag 3+times a week! Then she just stole from my friend's daughter. Embarrassing.
Jenny you could be describing my daughter! She is also 7 and I empty stuff out of her school bag almost daily now. I find it so embarrassing but she always has an excuse that’s almost plausible. Last week she stole a running medal from her school running club and told me she’d won it for coming second. When I asked the club leader yesterday he was clueless. I do t know how to handle it! What do you do?
My son was diagnosed at the age 5 with ADHD, PTSD. He was placed in my home at the age of 2 1/2 with is 3 1/2 year old sister. It's been 10+ years and it seems he is getting worse than better, I have had several services working with me. CDS, HTC, BPA, kids peace, Acadia Mental health for children. Today he stole 3 items from school. He struggles with boundaries and feels he knows everything. Now he is suspended from school for 3 days. His teachers have been great with him. The principal has gone above and beyond. I'm so frustrated for all I have given him and it's like he doesn't care. Last year he spend 3 months doing day treatment programs. It seem like he was trying for the first 3 days. Then said it was stupid and gave up. After he completed the program, he was diagnosed with 6 different diagnosis; I'm worried about his future. Like you stated he knows right from wrong, being almost 13 years old. Yet he can't control him self when he feels strong about something.
Anyone else understanding my worries, frustration? I'm not giving up!!!
I feel like you are describing my son exactly. He started stealing and being defiant when he was 3 years old and of course, it has only gotten worse. He tells me that he steals from us because he isn't allowed to have those things. He is 6 now and was probably suspended 15 different times in Kindergarten 😒 And now the stealing is so bad, he's up ALL night long when he should be sleeping and giving his brain energy to steal whatever he can find downstairs. We are past the "don't overreact and calmly tell him it's bad" phase. There is a loft on top of our closet that will have a bed and a toilet. Seems kind of extreme but we are done being victimized and abused by him. Especially his step dad who doesn't deserve this. If we eliminate the want/need to steal in our home, that's the best that we can do. I feel that we have done our absolute best. And it's difficult because it makes me view him differently which of course isn't fair. An example, just this morning I found cooked leftover steak in his room that hadn't been touched sitting in his room at room temperature. So I basically just threw away money. 😢 It's all very sad and we've had to find ways to cope.
This is my son as well. In fact this morning I found out that he snuck downstairs in the middle of the night, into our bedroom and grabbed our Nintendo switch. He then decided he needed to buy a new game for it and spent $50.00 of our grocery money. Mind you we have this game on another device and no one plays it. I feel like I am a prisoner in my own home. I’m lost as to what to do. I’ve started bringing anything he’s gotten in to into my room but now he’s sneaking in there as well. Nothing is safe.
My son is 11 and he was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5 and now that he is 11 he has been diagnosed with ODD and his lying and stealing is out of control he is very disrespectful and does not know when to stop. It becomes stressful due too i have 4 other children and he has 2 younger brothers who follow in his footsteps he has learned how to manipulate others around including his therapist. As you stated I will not give up I need for my son to be the best version of his self
My 10 year old stole a wax scented candle refill kit for an electric plug in scented candle product at Walmart yesterday. He was there with his grandmother, where he was picking out any toy he wanted. He went off by himself and got this in his pocket I suppose, and then when he came home, left it near the back door where my 12 year old found out. We do not buy such products, or own anything like it. He could not have known what the refill product was for (other than that he could smell it), or needed or wanted it in any way. He did it for attention, or to see if he could get away with it, or for attention. He loves his grandmother coming, though they see her as a free ride, a break from the rules we have in our house. My mother wants to be an indulgent grandmother, and over the years, we have relented and if she wanted to take them to a store and buy them something we wouldn't we have went along with it, but this has been a source of trouble. So, I'll admit, I lost it when this all came out last night. Not my finest hour, but truth be told, I am thinking that I have had few fine hours in parenting my youngest boy. He has ADHD - no diagnosis for conduct disorder, and we have been unable to access a pediatrician to make changes to his medications that I think need to be made due to a shortage of those services in our region. That's me venting/complaining/explaining.
Here's the question: I am getting from the tenor of the material on the internet that the professional advice is to affirm the child, remind him that these behaviours hurt, and cause harm to him, us and the world, of course, take him to Walmart (which we will do today) where he can make recompense (with our money and time), use consistent consequences. We have been doing all that. And occasionally doing things not recommended like yelling, which I did yesterday. It's getting worse, not better. I am shocked, ashamed and frankly hopeless. Most of all I am worried. In my work I see what happens to kids who keep on these kinds of trajectory. I cannot bear that being his life, and so, I am trying to discover what, at this juncture can I put in place to reasonably dissuade him from these kinds of behaviours.
Your last paragraph really hit home. My youngest son just turned 11 and he has ADHD. Until a few months ago ADHD mainly meant he was hyperactive, lacked focus, struggled in school and with reacting inappropriately to emotional situations. Since then his disability has escalated. He has developed an anxiety disorder where he was compulsively vomiting for a while, has had other medical issues related to his digestive track that I believe are triggered from anxiety and has even had a panic attack. He is seeing a really good child psychologist, and she explained that the vomiting is a psychosomatic symptom of him not expressing his emotions and bottling them up. He is getting a lot better on that front with therapy. However, lately he is getting into trouble more at school with making poor choices and yesterday I found a small amount of marijuana in his coat.
I was devastated and reacted in a crazed manner, yelling and crying, trying to get him to tell me what it was doing there. He was very remorseful and crying as well. After attempting to lie, he finally admitted that he stole it from his dad's house (I do not indulge in drugs or condone it). His dad is a heavy drinker as well (although he is not supposed to drink around our son), so I am not sure if that has anything to do with my son's behaviour?? Maybe the emotional trauma from having an alcoholic parent is taking its tole on a child who already faces so many challenges?? Because of his difficulties talking about his feelings I am worried he is holding back and the situation at his dad's is not healthy. He said he does not know why he stole it, and I know without a doubt that he is not doing drugs, but it is the scariest thing I have ever gone through as a parent. He told me he also stole a phone charger from a store.
I made him call his dad and tell him what he did which was extremely difficult for him, he feels so bad that his dad will no longer trust him. One of the emotions he has the hardest time dealing with is shame. His dad told me he hides the marijuana from him and he thought something was up the weekend before when it was moved. After my son and I calmed down, we talked about stealing and worked on a strategy for him to recognize what he is feeling when he takes something, how he can learn to stop himself when he feels that way.
I think his impulse control is very low and I am so worried about him. My younger brother is ADHD, and although the situation is different with my son because there are so many more resources these days to help parents, I am so scared my baby is going to end up like my brother. My brother is an alcoholic and drug addict. He can't hold down a job and flies off the handle all the time, so no one wants to be around him.
If it makes you feel any better, you are not alone. Just hang in there and keep doing what you are doing. I can think of two adults off the top of my head that I work with now that are ADHD and they are university educated and successful in their work. They openly talk about how they have learned ways to deal with their disabilities so they can have good lives. With love (sometimes tough love) and perseverance, I am praying our boys will be okay too!
I think I have adhd... I cantthink control myself to steal tomoney my parents
I'm praying for you that you recive healing from this thing my daughter is 10 and has been stealing praying it stops soon
Suffering from same problem, want to contact a doctor for this problem
I am so thankful for everyones comments, it's nice not to feel so alone. Me and a few of my friends deal with the food thing, I find it funny possibly because I understand it. My eldest is 12 so if she snuck something unhealthy I tend to make her do laps and pushups to counter it. I also inforce that she can eat what she needs to but it should be healthy and has to be in the kitchen. Knowing she won't get into trouble helps get rid of the sneaking (though not totally). Yesterday she stole $20 from my purse (the last of my grocery money) I was not pleased but not really angry either, though I did tell her I was because I knew I should be, she was very remorseful. She used it to buy food at school. She admitted it to me without much probing and I appreciate that more than anything. She also told me right off that she would work to replace the money. I just wish I knew that she wouldn't steal from others. So far it hasn't been an issue.
I too need some advise. My daughter just turned 9 and we have been dealing with her stealing for a few years but it seems to be getting worse. I received a call again today from my daughters principal about her stealing for the 3rd time this school year but also she does it at home or the store. She shows no remorse about stealing and discipline doesn't seem to work. Im so lost as what to do next to get this to stop. Please any advise.
This sounds just like my 7 year old Granddaughter. I, too, want to help her and her family. What can we do to help her before she is older and has legal penalties.
I just have to say that I am so glad I found this thread. I am also going through this with my 9 year old son. I think I need help. I am starting to feel different about this child then I do my other three. He puts our family through absolute hell. He stole money from me. I told him that that was the money I was going to use to buy him his Christmas Presents so now he will not get any. What should I do?
I have a seven year old daughter with adhd that steals too. I do not understand why. She has PLENTY of her own money. Three times this week she has stolen money from me. I went out of my way tonight to have a great night with her.. put glow in the dark stars on the ceiling in our room, bought her some glow into he dark bracelets, and bought her a candy bar which I do not allow her to have because of the sugar. I went upstairs to take a bath and fifteen minutes later when I cam downstairs I noticed she had stolen 25.00 out of the kitchen. I have no idea what I am doing wrong. I have adhd and I do not steal...ever(mainly because I never want to go to jail... been there...done that for D.U.I. 23 years ago...that was enough) I do not model that type of behavior. I also do not lie to her (except about santa, easter bunny, etc) and she lies ALL THE TIME. I just do not know what else I can do..
Help me please. I have a nearly 14 year old son with adhd and he steals. So far i have had to take him out of school and home school, due to constant suspension., but i still have to work. Most days i start at 1, so in the morning we relax at home and do some school work. But from 1 the fun begins. He used to only steal fron home, money ,gift cards, phones etc. But over the past 3 months he has stolen fishing rods from someones home and yesterday he was caught shop lifting, we have court next week. How do i stop this? I feel like he is going to end up in jail. He is a nice kid and knows he is doing the wrong thing. HELP PLEASE!
Good Day I really need some sound advice here and after reading some of the stories here I can connect with each and everyone of you because my daughter of 12 has been putting me through this for years, fact of the matter is I am getting to a point where I feel completely clueless and hopeless because whatever I try will work for a maximum period of a week and then its just another memory that didnt work! I have seen countless pysciatrists, pediatricians, play therapists, doctors, occupational therapists and still I sit wondering each day what will she surprise me with today, Yesterday she tried to steal money out of my purse, we managed to catch her in the act but this is not the first time she has done something like this and when we asked her why she chose to try and steal it while we were sleeping over at grannys house for the weekend her reply was because you lock your door at night, that literally says to me that she is very aware of what she is doing and clearly strategic planning aswell, yet so many psyciatrists which ive had her at tell me that she is doing this because of the ADHD and that she doesnt have any control over her actions, so correct me if Im wrong then but isnt here behaviour verses what the psyciatrists are saying contradicting each other??? I do not know what to do anymore to get her to stop her bad behaviour??? please help any advice here is welcome
Hello . My son is 9. He had adhd and for the last month or so has been stealing from home . For example he stole a phone from his grandma and $20 out if her purse. He steals change and food And candy . He stole a sucker from auto zone. We made him take it back and pay for it then throw it away earned him what could happen. Nothing seems to help and today he stole a necklace And a lighter . He said he thought the neck was gold and someone at school wanted a lighter I'm thinking that's someone was him though. He goes to counseling and is on medicine . We have tried everything for discipline nothing is helping . It's getting to the point he lies and takes so much stuff my family dont even ant him to go to their house. Its frustrating and extremely hard . He was always a sweet boy did the normal kid things until a month or so ago now we cant get him under control. Please help !
Hi Melissa I have been struggling with my 12 year old son for the past 3 years now he has odd and ADHD he is on medication for it but he constantly likes and steals and is very good at being manipulative there are times we think he is doing better but really he was just that good at hiding things and lying he used to light things on fire in my home where I have other children living and he did it out of spite he literally his 3yr old sisters bday presents on fire out of jealousy and now the main issue is lying blaming others and stealing money and ect. We have him in counseling we have done everything and school is just another struggle there's always a call home from the school and my husband and I paying fines for his distructions it's gotten to be unbearable it's tearing the family apart especially my husband and I we are always arguing over him I'm so exhausted from it all I don't know what else to do really...
Hi, Brittany! I hope you have resources in the school to help out your son. If you haven't already, it may be worth talking to the social worker there to ask what you can do that might help your son curb more of these behaviors. In-home services may be helpful, too, if your insurance covers them and they're available in the area. It's worth calling county social services or human services to see if they can direct you to more assistance. It's also worth looking into crisis lines in the area, including whether there's a mobile crisis team. If he's setting things on fire an doing dangerous things in the home, some crisis teams can come out and work through the situation to either 1) get him to the hospital if it's to that level, or 2) work though a crisis plan with some strategies on how to manage the situations when they happen again. I hope you find the support you need!
This article explains a lot! I've mentioned stealing food concerning 1 of my children recently diagnosed with ADHD and the psychiatrist looked past it. This child had been doing it for years. My other child that has been diagnosed with ADHD and conduct disorder is stealing money and toys. Recently I found items from class in his pockets. Because this child is a toddler and behind developmentally I always try to explain to him that we have to pay for items if we want them. This helps in the store but now I'm trying to deal with him taking items from people, including family members and teachers.
My son recently got banned from a local store for stealing. He just can't control the impulse. He wanted candy, and he took it. He cared about the rules, and he feels ashamed about the situation. That's what makes his behavior slightly different from conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is harder because kids with this disorder tend to know the rules but don't really care about them. Every kid can be so different. Good luck with the little ones!
Hello Melissa, I'm dealing with an 8 yr old that steals as well. Yesterday, he stole $160.00 from a small safe in his older sister room. We found out because he took the money to school and his teacher saw him playing with it today. This isn't the first time he's stolen but the stakes are getting higher. Food, candy and trinkets is one thing but cash from a closed place is another.
We've discussed, punished and disciplined on many occasions but it doesn't seem to stop. Any advice will do, cause our next step is to take him to the police station to see if they can help scare him straight.
Hi, LT! It's so hard. Sometimes, our kids with ADHD either don't understand the consequences, can't plan enough ahead to even consider consequences, or have other things like ODD going on where they really don't care about the consequences. I've learned, on my end, that it's far easier to try to prevent it than to punish it afterwards. It's easier emotionally for me, but with an 8 year old, he may not even be developmentally capable of responding to punishment afterward right now. I know it feels like the victims of the behavior get the worse end of the stick, but it may be that your daughter needs to put a combination on that safe so the 8 year old can't get to it, and you may need to keep an eye out to make sure nothing of value that you're concerned will get stolen is left in an easily accessible safe. We've locked and put an alarm on our pantry and refrigerator ourselves. When we put just a lock on them, he could still get in sometimes because our son is kind of wily. With the alarm, he knows we'll hear it and can at least plan that far ahead. He comes and asks us more often now, even when it's 4am or something ridiculous.
This article hit home for me. Especially the eating portion. May I ask what you used to lock up cabinets and the fridge? I can talk until I’m blue in the face about stealing/sneaking but nothing seems to register.
Hello Dawn, we used a chained door lock for our pantry and we don't leave much in the refrigerator that he can take. Unfortunately, we had to put a motion detector at the bottom of the stairs so if he attempts to come down stairs when he shouldn't (like when we are sleeping) a bell will ring. We can turn the alarm on and off. Once we put the alarm up, it shocked him a few times. Now he doesn't know if it's on or off in the morning so he doesn't try to sneak down.
Shocked, meaning alarmed it.
My grand daughter is 13 and was diagnosed with adhd when she entered kindergarden. She has been stealing from me for 2 years. It is usually make up. Over the Christmas vacation she spent 3 nights with me. I have taken all make up from my bathroom and this time she to bath and body sprays (2 bottles). He parents don't seem to understand how to deal with this problem. She is punished . Recently her parents went thru a nasty divorce but the stealing has been going on for a number of years. At least 5 yrs. How can I help her. I have never approached her when I have found items missing and found she had them.
Hi, Sylvia! This can be hard, and I can’t pretend to know how the dynamics in a relationship work when you’re a grandparent vs a parent. As a parent, though, I’d confront her about it. She may lie or she may not, but your granddaughter needs to know that you notice and that the stealing affects you. It’s taken awhile, but my son is now at the point that, yes, he still steals, but when we confront him, he immediately expressed remorse and returns it (if it wasn’t food he already ate). Maybe your granddaughter will get to that point, too!
I'm Susan Traugh, another author at HealthyPlace.com. I, too, had problems with my then 13 year old bipolar daughter stealing from me. I began confronting her every time I discovered it. I didn't ask, I just said, "I know you took this from me. I'm not here to blame or shame you, but I need this to stop and want you to tell me what we must do to make that happen." In the beginning, she denied she'd done it. I simply said I knew she had and come talk to me when she could be honest. Soon she began to own up; later she would confess before I ever knew. Together, we worked out a plan where I would hide some things and we'd check other temptations together. We talked about how her stealing soothed some pain and found other things we could do together so we could replace an unacceptable soother for an acceptable one. Finally, my daughter came to me to confess a desire to steal, but what steps she'd taken to keep from doing it. It took us over a year, but stealing is no longer an issue in our family. I wish you luck with yours.
Susan, thank you so much. Your reply has given me hope and a strategy to implement with my 10 year old son. Thank you so much.
I have a 16 year old daughter she was diagnosed with ADHD when she was little. She would steal and then say but it was not me. She stole clothes from shops she was not caught but we did take everything back she took. I felt so ashamed. How can I help her. She also has no respect when she speaks to her stepfather. She thinks she's an adult and when we confront her she acts like a child. My husband does not know how to deal with her. He said she is going to end up in jail if this can't be stopped. PLEASE HELP.
I am dealing the similar with our son. Lately he started confessesing abt stealing & lying. Can you please how did you help your child to recognize the urges to urges to steal & what did you replace the stealing behavior with. That will be very helpful.