Childhood Kleptomania: How We Survived

Today’s topic for Blogging A-Z is K for Kleptomania (a pretty serious topic). 

You’d think I remember how it started, but I don’t. It’s not even significant. I just know that one day, I’m asking my child how this piece of plastic that he didn’t own before got in his pocket. He looks incredibly guilty, but says nothing. “Where did it come from?” I ask, thinking back to all the places we had been. He would not answer. I couldn’t even fully see it. I just started quizzing him. He agreed that he had gotten it from the store. I panicked and told him we had to go back, return it, and apologize immediately. He had a full-on meltdown right there. Once he finally took it out of his pocket, I realized he had gotten this beaten-up, broken toy from my parents’ house. Relief washed over me. Same problem, but no way could we drive almost 2 hours to return it. Lucky him.

Childhood Kleptomania: How We Survived


Terming what he did childhood kleptomania might seem a touch drastic, but this trend continued for a while. We’d go somewhere, he’d somehow wind up with something he didn’t own, we’d go back and return it and he had to apologize. Thank the Lord he never stole anything from a store. We taught him that authorities got involved at stores, so I guess that scared him into feeling a bit more conscious about his choices. But he would do little things like take an extra prize when he went to Occupational Therapy or take the play phone from Sunday School at church even though he had one at home. It made no sense in the scheme of things because he has plenty of toys and gets what he needs at home. He just got attached to whatever he was playing with or wanted a collection of things and didn’t want to let it go. No matter how much we told him he was stealing, that fixation on the object meant more.

We had some issues at the camp he went to and I no longer allowed him to leave without first checking his pockets or his bag. He also had to apologize if he took things, even if he didn’t leave with them. But none of that mattered in the long run. 

I finally asked him one day how he would feel if I took away his favorite toy or if someone else did and they never returned it. He said he’d feel sad. I told him that’s how people feel when he takes their things. He seemed to connect with this more, and he stopped taking things. Occasionally, he’ll need a reminder about this lesson, but it doesn’t happen often. I think he just sees things that looks sparkly or new to him and he’s drawn to them and that’s when it happens most. Last time it happened, I had him go back to school with it and his teacher said she started to talk to him and he just blurted out, “I’m sorry,” so I think he gets it. 

The problem gets more complicated when you through the autism-wrench in there because of lack of empathy and the nature to fixate on items, but you should always stay the course. It is possible that you can stop the issue early on. We seem fortunate enough that we’ve at least mostly gotten it worked out. Then again, I think that’s what’s most difficult about the issue in general. My son, I think, still fights that impulse to take things that he sees every single day. Even just something as simple as little girl’s headband. And no, maybe it’s not appropriate for a boy to want a headband, but it’s pretty and it’s got cool skulls on it, and he does not have one yet, so he wants it. Why not take it? Next thing you know, it’s in his backpack with no apparent plan for what to do with it. He doesn’t forward to when I open up the backpack like I do every afternoon to see what’s for homework, look at his lunchbox, and check for notes and see it sitting in there. He just sees it and stashes it away. So then he’s got to return it, but he doesn’t want to, because he doesn’t have one. He doesn’t take anything else for months because he either (a) knows he’ll get caught and get in trouble for it (b) knows it’s wrong, or (c) hasn’t found anything else he wants. I’ll never know! I’m going to pray that we’ve gotten both (a) and (b) into him.  

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Tips for dealing with childhood kleptomania:

  • Talk to your doctor about it. Sometimes a chemical imbalance might be at root. If it’s truly kleptomania, it’s a highly impulsive act. One of the other things we did that I think did change things was changed his medications a bit. Perhaps chemically things just weren’t right. You never know!
  • Talk to your child. No. REALLY talk to your child. Like, in a way that shows you’ll listen and they won’t get in trouble for telling you what they feel. Try to figure out why your child might be stealing. Maybe it’s not about the object. For me, it was more difficult because autism is a communication disorder, so he couldn’t communicate with me when I asked him if something was wrong. If you can talk to you child, try. Your doctor might suggest some people if (s)he feels it’s necessary though.
  • Do not embarrass your child. I always made my son go back and apologize, but I did it in a way that he always felt comfortable with the situation and he knew that doing the right thing would lead to a successful result. You want your child to know that doing the right thing equals success, so publicly ridiculing your child will not get that message across. Have your child speak for him/herself, but make sure the other party involved knows that you anticipate a positive response for your child’s repentance. 

Just keep trying. Don’t give up on your child. You know your child needs you, so if something doesn’t work and you’re banging your head against the wall, go back to that doctor and search for another answer together. And I’ll always listen here. So lay it on me. I may not give you the answers you seek, but I’ll read/listen without judgment. 

Have you ever had to deal with childhood kleptomania or known someone who has? 

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  1. Wow, when i was a kid, I had the same problem but my mother took the African approach and beat vthe hell out of me. I had fear but not discipline.

  2. Wow, thank you for sharing your story! We have not dealt with this thankfully. My niece seems to struggle with this issue, but I think for her, it’s more of an attention-getting tactic. It’s harder to combat something like this when you’re not the parent, but I’ll definitely keep these tips in mind with her.

  3. This is a great post on a serious topic. I never stoel things, but I can relate to the issues that cause it. I’m glad you got it through to him that he can’t take away other peoople’s belongings. #AtoZChallenge

  4. Thank you for this article. I have felt like a failure of a mother for years. I have know something wasn’t quite right with my child for years, professionals agreed with that, but no one would diagnose her with anything other than ADHD and ODD. She is now 14, and due to legal troubles, the kind that you mentioned in this article, I was able to have a psychiatrist re-evaluate her. She is now, at 14, diagnosed with autism. I feel like so many years have been wasted with her not receiving the proper treatment, medical, educational, therapeutic… I have also made my child return the items she has taken and apologize to the individuals she has stolen from. However, after years of this behavior, with little relief, she has made a name for herself. And with little affect, no empathy or true remorse, her apologies are not often well received. And most of the individuals consider me an “enabler”. Thank you for telling your story. I know how hard being so honest and transparent can be. You have given me hope, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.