Our attachment-challenged and special needs children do things we often have a hard time understanding. Parents have a tendency to label these things nonsensical, stupid, ridiculous, criminal, and crazy. I have been guilty of the same thing sometimes, even though I do understand.
Because there are so many articles, TV shows, and Internet pieces on how prisons are full of attachment-challenged adults, it makes sense that you would be worrying fiercely about your child who steals. The obvious conclusion is that your child will end up in prison. That is jumping to a fear conclusion.
Your fear may cause you to distance yourself, over control, or shame your child when you experience behavior that you don’t understand. Resist an emotional response. Use your thinking skills to quell your own fear so you can be therapeutic in your response, rather than hurtful.
Our children often do not understand why they stole something; therefore, asking them why will not likely beget a meaningful answer. The following are some of the reasons why:
- Stealing something often holds the promise of filling up a pervasive hole of emptiness and deprivation in one’s core. There may be variances and nuances, but the result is usually a vague hope of getting something that will make them feel better, less empty, more special, less deprived.
- Stealing feels good. The act of taking something that one knows is forbidden produces an immediate neurochemical boost—adrenaline and dopamine. It’s a jolt that children often experience as powerfully pleasing. There is a downside to stealing, but these children have poor cause-and-effect thinking, so the threat of the downside will not break the urge to feel good. The high reinforces stealing the next time. That is often why children repeatedly steal.
The good feelings resulting from stealing outweigh the pain of punishment; therefore, punishment will not work to extinguish stealing. Give it up. Go for a calm relational intervention. It sounds like this: Oh, you brought home something that isn’t yours. You must really have wanted to feel better, so you took it. We don’t steal in our family—it’s wrong and it’s against the law—so you are going to return it with an apology. That’s it. Over and over again.
Parents, I can feel your cringe. My light handed, low-emotional response goes against the parenting imperative to punish bad behavior. Unfortunately, that will not stop the behavior from repeating. Imposing painful punishment will not reinforce better decision making in the future for our kids; it will, however, create a barrier between you and your child, reducing your relational influence to zero. Without relational influence with your attachment challenged child, you will have a captive body with checked out heart and mind. That condition will not prevent stealing in the future.
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