10/14/2011 05:21 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2011

Kids And Stealing: How Do I Get My 12-Year-Old To Stop Taking Money From Us?

Dear Susan,

My 12-year-old has a bad habit of stealing money from us. She says it's because she doesn't have any but all of her friends do. What can we do to teach her what will happen if she keeps this behavior up?

Police Mama

Dear Police Mama,

You're not alone. Recently, I had a counseling session with “Sharon and Dan” after they discovered that their daughter “Meghan” had been stealing money from them. Meghan, like your daughter, attempted to justify her behavior by claiming that she only stole because (as she put it) her parents didn't give her enough of an allowance. “My friends have cool stuff, and I can't buy anything with the little bit you give me!” Meghan said. Sharon was angry and hurt. “We do so much for Meghan," she said. "And this is how she treats us?” And, Dan was furious. He had come down hard on his daughter, grounding her for two months after yelling at her for over an hour. I'll give you the same advice I gave them.

First, it's crucial that you get to the root of the problem by talking to your daughter. Lecturing kids who steal isn't enough; you need to find out what motivated her to break the law. It could be any of the following:

Motivator #1: Insecurity
Is your daughter comfortable with her friends? It's possible that she feels less than if she's not wearing the coolest clothes or carrying new gadgets. If that's the case, your best bet is to help her take an honest look at the quality of her “friendships” to determine whether they're as solid as they should be. Be careful about launching into an advice-giving session. Your first task is to create receptivity by letting your daughter know that you want to hear what's actually going on in her life.

Motivator #2:
It may be that she thinks stealing from her mom and dad is no big deal. Ask your daughter this: “Do you think that because we're your parents we have lots of money or we won't notice if it's missing?”

Motivator #3
She may simply feel as though you're being stingy. Ask: “Did you believe that it was fine to steal from us because you should be getting a bigger allowance?” You may not like her answer, but again, your goal is to get to the heart of the problem, so listen without interrupting, which I know is easier than it sounds.

Next, establish consequences for her behavior, and provide her with the support she needs to make better choices. Tell her that you appreciate her honesty, and that you're going to work with her to make sure she doesn't engage in illegal activity again. Really emphasize that stealing is against the law. Require her to pay you back by earning money doing small jobs. And you may want to limit her participation from special activities with her friends for a couple of weeks.

Your greatest impact -- and the most long-lasting lesson -- will come from helping your daughter move past defending her actions, to connecting with the discomfort she felt when she was stealing.

Sharon and Dan brought Meghan in for a family session. Once she saw that I was creating a space that would make it safe for her to speak honestly, she admitted how insecure she was with her current group of friends. She said they bad-mouthed kids behind their back who didn't look cool.

As Mom and Dad -- with some coaching -- let their daughter know that they cared more about her than the money she had taken, she softened. I asked her how it had felt to go into her mom's purse and her dad's wallet when they weren't looking, and to reconnect with the anxiety and guilt that had accompanied her actions. When she revisited the experience of stealing, it was clear that she had been terrified and guilt-ridden. The more she got out of her defensive mode and into the emotional discomfort she had experienced, the closer I knew we were to putting an end to the behavior.

Sharon told her daughter she was sad to see her doing something so out of character. And, because Meghan didn't feel attacked, she was able to connect authentically with her remorse. By helping Meghan feel the impact of behaving in a way that compromised who she really wanted to be -- an honest person who didn't harbor secrets or hurt those she loved - I knew the stealing wouldn't happen again.

By addressing the problem directly, rather than through punishments, guilt and shaming, you'll also be able to deal effectively with your daughter's stealing.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.