Guest Author - Beverly Patchell
Stealing and/or shoplifting occurs in a context. For adolescents, that context is usually proving something to themselves or someone else. Sometimes it can be part of a larger scenario of risk-taking, done as part of a series of events of ever increasing risk to self. It is also another way to find a boundary, in this case that boundary can be personal, social, legal, and/or moral. When an adolescent is caught stealing or shoplifting, it is important to learn the context of the act. Was it done as part of a group? Was there any element of desperation to it? Was it to get caught or get attention?
The first thing a parent must do when this happens is get a grip on their own feelings. Finding out your adolescent is stealing can create deep moral fear or outrage. It can bring out all of your fears of being a failure as a parent and at the same time, anger that the adolescent would put you in this situation. In this case, taking deep breaths while counting to 10, maybe more than once, really is a good idea. Those deep breaths will stop that cortisol and adrenaline from flowing so intensely through your body and give the thinking part of your brain time to work on solutions. The next thing is to seek counsel from an outside, more neutral person, who can help stabilize the situation and help you think it through. It is a bonus if that person is someone both you and your adolescent trusts. It could be a minister or a coach or a relative, but please make it someone with a cool head in a crisis.
Once the crisis has past, the ongoing work is the re-establishment of trust in the family. In this case, time becomes your friend. You can set a date to revisit the issue of more freedom for the adolescent and review what is and is not enhancing your ability to trust them. Restitution can be part of this process, depending on the context of the stealing. It is important to remember that it is the behavior that is the problem, not the adolescent. In order to regain your trust, they must be given the opportunity to be trustworthy. It is good to keep that neutral person on board for this time, as well, so they can help with the process of getting the family back to normal. A therapist may be a choice if the situation was particularly serious. If this is a deeply moral issue for the family, it is important that the religious or spiritual adviser be part of the re-establishment of trust and the sincere acknowledgment of a new start for all.