Parenting, Trauma and Stealing Oh My!

If your child has experienced trauma, it is important to understand that their behavior may be impacted as a result. One common behavior that can be seen in children with trauma is stealing.  When your child begins to exhibit behaviors such as stealing, it can leave you as the caregiver feeling lost and unsure of how to best support them.  As a parent, it can be extremely difficult to understand AND cope with a child who has experienced trauma and is also displaying stealing behavior.   A friendly reminder (although hard to hear) is that it’s important to understand that this behavior is a symptom of underlying issues, not a character flaw or intentional misbehavior.  This can help us, as parents approach the child with empathy and support, rather than criticism and punishment.  However, let’s be honest, this behavior (stealing) can cause feelings of frustration, confusion, and embarrassment.   Again, it’s important for parents and caregivers to remember that the root cause is often tied to the child’s traumatic experiences.   In this post, we will discuss why children may steal after experiencing trauma and what parents can do to help.

To understand why a child may engage in stealing, it’s important to consider the impact of trauma on their developing brain. Traumatic experiences can cause changes in the brain that make it more difficult for a child to regulate their emotions, manage impulses, and make positive choices.  An example of struggling to manage impulses…stealing.  Children may engage in stealing as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions and sensations.   Stealing is a manifestation of their traumatic experiences.   Those experiences can lead to behavior such as stealing as a means of coping or survival.

Studies have shown that children who have experienced trauma often have increased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the experience of fear and anxiety. This heightened level of anxiety can cause the child to engage in impulsive behaviors, such as stealing, as a way to cope with feelings of insecurity and fear. Additionally, trauma can affect the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, executive functioning, and impulse control. This can lead to difficulties in controlling impulses and making positive choices, increasing the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior, including stealing or theft.


Why children may steal after experiencing trauma:


Lack of trust or attachment

Children who have experienced trauma may find it difficult to trust others, including their parents.  This can lead them to steal as a way of ensuring they have what they need.  Trauma can cause children to feel a sense of insecurity and anxiety, which can lead to impulsive or problematic behaviors such as stealing. In some cases, children may even believe that they need to steal to survive.  When children have experienced trauma and have difficulties forming attachments and may lack a sense of security and safety. Stealing may provide them with a sense of power and control, which can help them feel secure. Children and teens may steal as a way to assert control and power over their environment. This can be a result of a lack of control in other areas of their life or a desire to feel in control.


Unmet needs

Children who have experienced trauma may have unmet emotional, physical or psychological needs. Stealing can be a way for them to try and meet these needs.  Children and teens who have experienced poverty or a lack of material possessions may engage in stealing as a means of obtaining what they need or want. This can be a result of a lack of access to basic necessities or a desire for material goods.


Past experiences

Children who have experienced trauma may have been exposed to criminal or destructive behavior in their past, which can make them more likely to engage in similar behavior.


Lack of positive reinforcement or positive & healthy boundaries 

Children who have experienced trauma may have difficulties forming positive relationships and may not receive positive reinforcement for good behavior. Stealing may provide them with a sense of accomplishment and positive reinforcement that they are not receiving elsewhere.  Children and teenagers who have experienced trauma may also steal as a way of testing boundaries and exploring the consequences of their actions. This may be due to difficulties in understanding and following rules and norms as a result of their traumatic experiences.



In the Hub, in the resources section, there’s a handout on what parents or caregivers can do when their child struggles with stealing.   Overall, children who have experienced trauma may engage in stealing behavior. As a parent, it is important to understand the underlying causes of this behavior and take steps to support your child in overcoming it.  We acknowledge that parenting a child with trauma can be challenging, but with the right support and approach, it is possible to help the child overcome their difficulties and lead a fulfilling life.  With patience, understanding, and the right resources, your child can learn to trust and develop healthy behaviors.  By incorporating these additional ideas into your parenting approach, you can provide additional support and resources to help prevent stealing and reduce the amount your child steals.

Keep in mind that every child is unique and it may take time and patience to find what works best for your child.  It’s important to approach the child with empathy and a non-judgmental attitude. Try to understand why they may be engaging in this behavior and the underlying needs that may be driving it. This can help to build trust and facilitate communication between you and the child, allowing you to better understand their experience and how to help.