Kleptomania: Sticky little fingers

What can you do when you discover that your kid can’t resist the urge to steal?

sticky-little-fingers-350x419Radha had invited her friend Sonam and her family over for dinner. It was an enjoyable evening; everyone was busy chatting, eating and relaxing. Radha’s husband was regaling the group with a funny anecdote when Radha noticed Sonam’s daughter Richa picking up a spoon from the table and keeping it in her bag. Radha was a little taken aback, but then thought she imagined the incident.

After dinner, Radha went to wash her hands when she saw Richa picking up the soap from the washbasin and putting it in her pocket. She watched in disbelief but then thought Richa was playing some sort of game. She wanted to ask Richa to return the items, but hesitated. And she certainly didn’t want to bring up this topic with Sonam because she thought it would spoil their friendship, and that too over silly items like a spoon and soap bar. After they left, Radha had a lot of questions. How could the child steal? Doesn’t she know stealing is bad? And why would she steal something as ordinary as a spoon and soap bar?

The next day, Radha received a call from Sonam who apologised profusely. She had just seen the items. She then told Radha that Richa suffered from kleptomania, and that she was getting help for it.

What is the difference between thieving and kleptomania?

Kleptomania is a psychological disorder wherein the person feels a compulsion to steal something without having any personal or monetary gain in mind. It is an impulse control disorder in which the person steals simply because she cannot resist stealing, not because she needs the item.

Children with kleptomania do not pick up very expensive or trendy items. On the contrary, they usually pick up petty items like pencils, balls and bottle caps, which cost too little and are probably even useless. They feel extremely tense just before the urge kicks in. This anxiety keeps mounting till they succeed in picking up something. After they manage to sneak the item into their bag or pocket, they experience a surge of relief and happiness. In many cases, if they do not succeed in their attempt, they get very aggressive, anxious or withdrawn.

Kleptomania is different from thievery in that in the latter, people steal for reasons like monetary gain, revenge, greed or envy. The reasons behind kleptomania and ordinary stealing are significantly diverse.

Why would a child steal compulsively?

Though it is difficult to understand the exact reasons behind compulsive stealing, here are few common ones:

Obsessive compulsive disorder: A child could have OCD, which forces her to pick up items whether she needs them or not. In this case stealing is a compulsive ritual and it helps to minimise her anxieties.

Very low self-esteem: A child who feels others perform well in academics, sports, social activities while she feels like a consistently poor performer may develop low self-esteem. If a child’s real-life experiences are always depleting her ego, she may try to pump it up. Unconsciously, she may want to boost her ego by secretly doing something, which she thinks she can get away with. Picking up something that doesn’t belong to her may be a way to simply increase her self-confidence.

Feelings of deprivation: A child who feels a big void inside due to a strong sense of deprivation may try to fill the void by taking random things. This sense of deprivation may be totally unjustified to an onlooker. For example, a child may be feeling unloved by her father. Though others can vouch for her father’s love and involvement, she does not feel it. We are not talking about reality here, but the child’s perception that creates the void in her psyche. She may start picking up her things belonging to her friends’ fathers—simple items things like pens—to fill this void. Since the objects can never compensate for what is really missing, the child continues to steal.

Other psychological issues: Some children have a poor concept of personal boundaries. They cannot understand what belongs to them and what does not. They do not appreciate the social rules. When they learn a rule, they want to test it without others’ knowing, of course. They feel everything belongs to them.

What can you do?

First, you need to check whether your child is pilfering to get your attention or if it is indeed kleptomania. If she has kleptomania, coaching the child on the virtues of honesty is futile because in this case she is not picking up something that doesn’t belong to her for personal gain. She simply cannot control herself. This is a key point in analysing the reasons behind the problem as well the remedial steps to be taken.

Psychotherapy seems to be the best way to intervene in cases of kleptomania. Understanding the root causes behind this compulsive stealing is vital.

  • The first step is to thoroughly analyse what need the theft is fulfilling.
  • Once the core want has been identified, then helping the child fulfil that basic need is the next step. This often helps the child get over her psychological issues.
  • Cognitive behaviour therapy is also effective in treating kleptomania. Children are exposed to temptations to steal in various situations under a therapist’s supervision. The therapist then guides them on how to curb their temptations.
  • In severe cases, bio-medical interventions like mood stabilisers and anti-depressants might be required. Researchers have found that the medication numbs certain parts of the brain that generate pleasure by when the child steals.

Treat with care and kindness

Children with kleptomania generally don’t remember how the item came into their possession. Always keep in mind that they are not stealing out of revenge or personal gain. They are suffering from a mental condition. So, confronting them for the theft or punishing them will do more harm than good. Remember, these children are already emotionally fragile. They lose the trust of others in them; they often lose their friends over stealing rows. They may even be branded as thieves.

Parents need to be careful when dealing with such children. If you notice signs of kleptomania in someone else’s child, bring up the subject with the child’s parents. If you think your child might have kleptomania, don’t delay getting help.

A gentle and understanding approach works best.

This was first published in the March 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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