Many adults will probably recall a time in their childhood when they were guilty of a little stealing. Perhaps it was just a few dollars you found lying around the house, or a tempting trinket off a shop counter.

The truth is that young children do not always understand exactly what stealing is, and those that do sometimes steal to impress their friends or for a dare. For most children this “experiment” in dishonesty is short-lived, especially when they are caught and appropriately disciplined.

Stealing needs to be considered as a potentially serious problem, especially if it occurs outside the home. Of course if your child has stolen something, it doesn’t make them a delinquent. Rather, you need to discourage stealing, find out the reasons your child has stolen, and take steps to prevent it leading to further problems at school and in the wider community.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect school-aged children to be honest and trustworthy.

For children who show a pattern of repeated stealing, steps must be taken to correct this behavior as soon as possible. The majority of adult criminals started their life of crime well before their teenage years.

One eleven-year-old boy I worked with found out his mother’s Personal Identification Number (PIN) to her bank account and withdrew $400 from an automatic teller machine over a period of two weeks. He was also caught stealing money from a teacher’s purse and had stolen things from other children’s bags at his school.

If you discover money or other items missing, or your child has something in their possession that cannot be accounted for, act immediately. Do not wait for proof. You may not always be able to prove that your child has stolen particularly if your child has learned to cover up by lying.

Tell your child the facts, for example “I had $5 in my purse and now it is gone. We are the only ones at home.” Do not ask for a confession, as your child may lie. Ignore protests and claims of innocence and carry out a suitable consequence for their actions such as the temporary removal of television or computer game time and repayment of missing money through extra jobs or loss of pocket money.

While this may seem harsh, particularly without proof, you should be prepared to act on your suspicions as it is more of a problem if your child is able to get away with stealing. You might like to say something like, “I don’t know for sure whether you did it, but I strongly suspect you did. If I’m wrong I’m sorry, but what I’ve said goes.”

Steps can also be taken to reduce the possibility of your child stealing in the first place. Children are more likely to steal if money is left lying around the house, if they spend a lot of time on their own, or through peer pressure. Try to cut down the amount of time your child spends unsupervised either at home or out and always know where they are and who they are with.

Primary school children should not be left unsupervised. If someone is unable to meet them at home after school alternative care arrangements should be made.

If you are finding it difficult to discourage your child from playing with children who seem to be a bad influence, help them get involved in some sport or activity that do not involve these children.

Remember too, that persistent stealing may also be a sign of serious family problems or an indication of other difficulties with your child such as aggression, lying, disobedience, low selfesteem, or learning difficulties. If you are concerned that your child has significant problems seek professional help.

Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.