teen son shoplifting

My Son Thinks Shoplifting is Okay

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 259 · Duration: 00:19:42

What do you do when you discover your young teen is shoplifting, seems to think everyone does it, and that it’s okay behavior?  We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, My Son Thinks Shoplifting Is Okay.  

Healthy Family Connections, the number one rated family therapy podcast, is sponsored by Neil D Brown, LCSW. I’m your host, Neil D Brown and I’m here to help you get that enjoyable family you work for every day. 

Please remember this podcast is for educational purposes only, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy when you need it.

Today we’re hearing from Marianne of Omaha, NB. 

My almost 14-year-old son has started shoplifting. At first small items and now increasing to clothing. 

We have confronted him on it and tried not to lecture him but rather tried to get a sense of why he would be doing this. We've asked him questions to encourage his own thinking about the potential consequences and effects of his actions. He just started high school and is finding newfound independence with the switch from middle school to high school and is connecting with new kids that we don't know. I understand this is a natural process of individuation. But, we are very concerned about our son and want to guide him toward making better decisions and staying in line with his own integrity. 

He is quite defensive and tries to justify his behavior: "all the kids do it, the store won't miss it - big corporation, I won't get caught" etc....

He even said - "This is how it works; you make bad decisions, you reflect and then you learn." I reply, "Yes to some extent that is true, however, this is a criminal act and has consequences bigger than you realize."

We have not always had the best relationship and have been caught up in control battles in the past. It is better now between myself and him, although some aspects of a control battle linger between him and his dad. Dad can be critical, shaming, sometimes lectures, and can get controlling. He says things to our son that are damaging, like 'don't be an idiot', 'don't become like my loser cousin'... I have spoken to him about the impact this can have on a young teen's sense of self. That it can actually fuel negative behavior and damage the relationship of trust and safety between a parent and child. He is working on himself in this regard and trying to find his calm and understanding and develop a healthy vision of our son. 

I am curious how you think about this in the context of a family system and attachment. Would love to hear your perspective and any guidance you may be able to provide. 

Thanks for your question Marianne, 

Your son is shoplifting and doesn’t appear to think there’s anything wrong with it. And you’re wondering how to understand it with respect to family dynamics and perhaps attachment issues and guidance for how to deal with this.

Generally, when parents discover that their youth has stolen, several steps can happen. 

One is that the item can be returned. Often the youth and the parent go to the store, bring it to the manager, and return it or pay and apologize.  If that’s not feasible or if that’s impossible such as the item was edible, or isn’t returnable for another reason, or there is concern about being arrested, then we can give the item away to charity and give an equal value amount to a charity of choice. You can also send the money to the store anonymously explaining that it’s payment for an item that was stolen.

In other words, when our kids do something wrong, we want to build a structure for them to right the wrong. If they break something, fix it or replace it. Hurt someone? Make amends in word and deed. 

Marianne, yes ask more questions than statements and certainly not shaming statements.  After all, your son is right.  You make bad decisions and then you reflect and learn.

Perhaps he’s reflecting on the question: What's right with what I’ve done? What makes it okay? And he answered that “1) all the kids do it, 2) the store won't miss it - big corporation, and 3) I won't get caught.”

His point here is that it seems culturally acceptable, everyone does it and no one gets hurt since it’s a corporation.  He also contends that he won’t get caught, but he has been caught - by his parents.  And since parents know that it’s unconditionally unacceptable, he must learn more about exactly why that is. Yes, as he says, you make bad decisions, which he has done. Then you reflect and learn, which he has not done.

Your approach is to ask questions and not shame him or lecture him.  Excellent!  And it’s good that you don’t want to be in a Control Battle, that’s good too.

It’s good that Dad is working on holding and communicating a healthy vision of his son. That’s such an important step in ending Control Battles. My guess is that Dad was raised with a pretty unpleasant childhood and adolescent parenting style and has his own issues with worthiness.  His cousin apparently didn’t grow up very successfully and while your husband did, he most likely did from the position of doing what needed to be done to survive. So when his son does behaviors that look like his cousin’s Dad gets triggered and responds the only way that makes sense to him. Don’t be a loser.  For him, it’s a simple good/bad choice, not a learning and growing experience.

So let’s look at what’s going on here and what we need to do.

With all this shifting our parenting from harsh and negative, to supportive and engaging, I’m not sure what happened to accountability. This opens up the subject of how we establish accountability to appropriate standards of behavior and stay out of Control Battles.

The simple answer to that question is we move away from consequences and punishments for unacceptable behavior, to an earned privileges model.  Marianne, you can stay positive and supportive and at the same time remove privileges that he hasn’t earned.  And how do kids earn privileges or earn them back?  By stated and demonstrated commitment to healthy and appropriate standards of behavior.  

The curious element here is the fact that he is telling his Mom that shoplifting is okay. I would add that shoplifting has become more common among teens and adults lately.  That’s a function of stores not wanting to put their employees in unsafe situations and so less is being done to apprehend shoplifters, but that’s another discussion. 

But does he really think it’s okay, or is he simply defending his behavior and arguing with his mother?  Neither one of these is great, but if he truly doesn’t think it’s wrong, that’s a bad sign about his development and may be at the root of your question about attachment. Because kids who don’t have secure early attachment may have less empathy and value development. But I get a sense that he’s testing you. He knows it’s wrong, but wants to see how you react. Also, he sounds like a kid who likes to argue.  Since you’ve sworn off arguing, he’s testing where that goes. 

Now regardless if a child doesn’t know what’s wrong with what they did, or doesn’t fully understand it, or if they do but won’t acknowledge, we can ask them to research it. Then parents can also weigh in on their thinking and their values if that doesn’t get covered.

So how would you have the conversation? Here’s what I would offer:

So Max, I can see how stealing from large stores makes sense from your point of view:  Everyone does it.  No one gets hurt.  You won’t get caught. If that’s the case, then stealing could make sense.  Free stuff, that’s pretty cool!

But your ideas have holes in them. I’d like you to do some research and find out why those 3 ideas are incorrect.  And there are other ideas about why it’s wrong to steal from stores you can look for as well.  

I know you like your high school independence, but you need to know that until this gets resolved and we have a strong understanding of acceptable behavior away from home, you won’t be going out with your friends, and you won’t be having any of the many privileges you currently enjoy.

Marianne, you’d like him to discover the fallacies in his thinking on his own. But, if you need to offer a healthier point of view, then that might go like this:

Max, first of all, everyone doesn’t do it.  And while it’s common for young teens who are having their first experiences of independence to make some bad decisions, and many kids try shoplifting, most kids don’t shoplift.  A small percentage steal, and if you need to, look up some data on that. Think about it! If everyone stole, how would a store stay open? Most people are honest and don’t steal.

We all pay for the stealing that takes place. We could all buy things for less if no one stole, so the people that don’t steal, are paying more because some people do. When stores are in high crime areas, they either have to pay for guards to keep people from stealing, or close up and leave the neighborhood because they can’t afford to pay for the stealing. That robs the neighborhood of having good stores to shop in. 

If it looks to you like everyone does it, what you’re saying is the kids you hang out with steal, and that brings into question your current choices of friends.

Let me ask you a question, would you rather live in a world where you can trust people to be honest? Or a world where people lie and steal whenever they can?

And about believing you won’t get caught.  Murphy’s Law, look it up.

So Max, you’re an excellent young man and I know you will do the right thing if you know and believe in the right thing.  So do some work here, think about all this, and then tell me what you want to do.  As soon as you are 100% sure that you’ve got your thinking and behavior on this matter straightened out, let us know and we can talk about getting your privileges back.  

So when you ask about family systems Marianne, if Mom is the one who stands for having good conversations rather than punitive language, and Dad is the one who parents with anger and lectures and the youth continues to behave unacceptably then a Control Battle will exist among the three of you.  Alternatively, if Mom and Dad can come together with a positive message towards their youth and work with him to understand and be accountable and committed to healthy behavior, then the family system will be a healthy one.

So parents and counselors and folks who work with families and teenagers, Marianne is absolutely right. We want to invite our kids’ thinking rather than lecturing. They are far more likely to make important changes and learn important lessons when they’ve participated in the discovery.  But in order to have our kids engage in a discovery and learning process, there needs to be accountability.  

Thanks for tuning in today, listener,  and special thanks to Marianne for reaching out. Do you know someone who might benefit from this podcast? Please send them the link. Parents, you won’t be effective at the many challenges in your lives in a state of burnout. So take time for yourselves.  Every problem doesn’t need to be fixed today, and you don’t have to be the solution to every problem. So take care of yourselves. You need it, you deserve it and YOU’RE WORTH IT.  Bye for now.


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