Understanding the Motives of Child Theft
When a child steals, he is motivated to do so by completely different motives than those that lead an adult to steal. Adults regularly steal for material gain; children do this only when adults persuade them to do so. To understand the motives of child theft, it is necessary to examine what the child steals, to whom he steals, and what he does with the stolen items.
The Psychology of Child Theft: Four Case Studies
Finley is only 5 years old. His mother does not love him, she is rude to him, she often beats him; there is never any warmth for him, she considers him an unbearable burden and regrets that she gave birth to him. His father deals with him only when he thinks he should be beaten. The father’s attitude towards the child is best illustrated by the fact that he still wanted to suffocate him several times in the cradle when he cried at night. Finley’s parents never play with him or buy him toys, even though they do not live in poor economic conditions. In the kindergarten or among the children in the neighborhood, Finley steals something every hour, a toy, a pencil or another small thing. He hides it under the bedding at home and plays with those things when no one is watching him.
Many children steal with the same motivation as little Finley, with the desire that in the appropriation of crazy things, in the accumulation of objects that have a certain value for them, they hope to compensate for their feeling that they are not loved, that they are superfluous and unaccepted. Here the child finds some satisfaction in the fact that he owns at least objects when he no longer enjoys other people’s feelings. An eight-year-old boy who stole money from his mother and bought toys and sweets for his mother showed this motivation even more clearly than little Finley. He buried it all in a hole in the woodshed, where he often went just to look and stack his “treasure.”
Seven-year-old Joseph is a very spoiled child. Until he started school, there were no difficulties with him, because his parents did not demand anything from him, and they satisfied him in everything. When he went to school the boy developed a whole series of neurotic disorders; he began to stutter, bite his nails, pluck his hair, lost his appetite. Although he has above-average intelligence, he had a hard time at school. He is very dependent, careless when doing assignments, aggressive towards other children. All of this is a sign that Joseph experienced starting school as a huge emotional burden that he is not considered to be up to. One day he started stealing from his parents. He took small sums of money from them and bought sweets, but he did not keep them for himself, but distributed them all among his friends. In this way he wants to bribe them to accept him, so as not to mock his incompetence. These gifts are not an expression of benevolence, but an attempt to buy someone else’s sympathy, when it cannot be achieved in a natural way. For Joseph is not generous; on the contrary, he is very stingy and selfish when he has to lend someone a school book or give him a toy.
Sometimes theft serves as a means of revenge to the educator in whom the child is deeply disappointed. An example of this is given by 12-year-old Mia.
She was two years old when her mother died. Then her father placed her in an orphanage. Apart from occasional visits, he didn’t care for her at all. A few years later, Mia’s father remarried. In his second marriage, he had a son. He almost completely forgot about Mia. When the little girl found out that her father had another child that he loved and held close to, she became very irritable, defiant and aggressive. At the urging of the competent guardianship authority, the father came to pick up Mia one day. She was very happy about it. But at home, a severe disappointment awaited her: the father paid much more attention to his little son than to her. And her stepmother treated her mostly indifferently. Shortly after her return, Mia started stealing from her father. She took his wallet money when he left his suit in the hall of the apartment. But she only took larger sums. She would buy herself a little thing, and she hid the rest somewhere and didn’t care about it anymore. Once her father caught her in the act and mercilessly beat her. But Mia just smiled maliciously and took the money from him again at the first opportunity. It was her revenge on her father who rejected her.
Evelyn’s case is interesting. She had three sisters, she was the oldest. For years, she was tormented by jealousy of her younger sisters, whom she felt neglected, mainly because they were prettier and more capable than her, and they were better students at school. When she was 14, she noticed that her friends were developing into girls, and she was still a child on the outside. This greatly exacerbated her sense of deprivation and inferiority. She became irritable, abandoned learning and started stealing. Wherever she was given the opportunity, on the bus, in the market, in the store, she took other people’s wallets. In this, she found a certain compensation for her dissatisfaction with herself. She calmed down when we applied psychotherapy and taught her parents how to systematically boost her self-esteem. When Evelyn finally reached puberty, and she became stronger and more beautiful, her behavior completely improved.
Theo is 17 years old. He is a bright and healthy young man, but he has not reached beyond the first grade of high school. He repeats the class, fails for the second time, will have to leave school. He is lazy, soft-spoken, has a hard time with failures, is indecisive, pliable, without energy, cannot be disciplined for systematic work. He always gives in to his momentary desires. He sleeps for a long time, he won’t do anything, he hangs out in the company of his peers. At home he is rude, impudent, blackmails his mother, quarrels with his father. All of these are the consequences of all possible upbringing mistakes in the family that have not yet ceased to function.
When he found out that he had failed at school this school year as well, Theo decided to take revenge. At night, he and two others broke into a school office and took some devices from it. The next day he tried to sell them. He was arrested and brought for a psychological-psychiatric examination. We found that the young man had above-average intelligence, but he completely lost confidence in himself and took a completely parasitic attitude towards life. When asked what he thinks about his future, he shrugs: “It will be somehow.” After a while, he spontaneously expressed the real motivation for his act: “Theft is the only thing I can do.” Indeed, Theo is just in theft he saw opportunities to experience in his own eyes the value of his personality, to rehabilitate himself before himself, at least in an antisocial way.
Motivations for Adolescent Theft: Necessity, Peer Pressure, and Self-Affirmation
Adolescents often steal out of necessity, when they indulge in vagrancy, so they have to somehow make a living. Sometimes they steal at the urging of others, when they join a gang of “homeless”. This is especially true of intellectually retarded young people who easily fall under the influence of their peers, do not fully realize the meaning of their act, and in addition theft can serve as a means of affirmation in their gang. Sometimes a discouraged, completely disappointed adolescent sees the theft as an opportunity to become a “hero” in his own eyes and in the eyes of others.
In conclusion, child and adolescent theft can be motivated by a variety of factors. Younger children may steal in an attempt to compensate for feelings of neglect or to seek attention from others, while adolescents may turn to theft out of necessity or peer pressure. Additionally, some may resort to stealing as a form of rebellion or self-affirmation. Understanding these motivations is key to addressing the underlying issues that may be driving the behavior. Through psychotherapy, increased self-esteem, and better parenting, it is possible to help children and adolescents find healthier ways to cope with their emotions and navigate life’s challenges.