Updated: Nov 3
Theft is one of the first delinquent acts juveniles commit. Young children tend to begin stealing
at or near home by taking objects or money from family members, friends, neighbors or local
stores. Juveniles who continue to steal, and who do not receive help in resolving their problems, can develop a negative pattern of behavior that may grow worse and result in more frequent and more serious delinquent acts. By the time most children reach first grade, they know it is wrong to steal. Nonetheless, most children will illegally take property that is not their own at least once before their 18th birthday. What follows is a list of the more common reasons why juveniles steal.
Peer pressures – Most children seek acceptance by their peers. They usually go through stages
when they talk, act and dress like their friends. Children also experiment with different values,
beliefs and behaviors within a peer group. This is how they learn to get along with others and fit into society. When peers pressure a child to steal, he or she may take part in this unlawful
activity to gain acceptance by the group.
Thrills and excitement – Many children enjoy “flirting with danger” and taking risks. Thrill
seeking and the need for excitement are a natural part of the process of growing up and a means to discover personal strengths and weaknesses. Children have different levels of need for excitement, depending upon their personalities and backgrounds. A child may commit theft once or many times “just for the fun of it” when 1) his or her level of moral judgment is immature, 2) his or her need for adventure is high and 3) other, more constructive, activities such as games and sport are unavailable.
Revenge – Some children steal for revenge against a person or institution they feel has
mistreated them. The high school dropout who breaks into school to steal sports equipment is an example. He may feel anger toward certain teachers and blame “the school” for his academic problems. When children steal for reasons of revenge, they usually are more interested in hurting the intended victim than acquiring stolen goods. Along with theft, these juveniles often engage in vandalism and the destruction of property.
Impulsivity – Children tend to be impulsive and immature in their ability to control strong
emotions. Many children steal or commit other delinquent acts “on impulse,” giving little or no
consideration to the consequences of their actions. Immature children are particularly susceptible to respond to pressures from peers impulsively. They tend to get caught-up in the moment and to override their internal judgment. Looking back on the situation, these children often regret their impulsive actions. Impulsivity tends to weaken as children grow older and gain maturity.
As a symptom of emotional problems – Some children who are struggling with emotional
problems steal because they have an unconscious desire to be caught. They often engage in
delinquent activities to gain attention from parents or others significant adults. Emotionally
disturbed children who steal are often “careless” in their attempts to avoid being caught. The
theft may be a distress signal or disguised cry for help.
To support a drug habit or expensive lifestyle – Children who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, or who are attempting to maintain an expensive lifestyle, may steal to support their habit. Theft may become part of a vicious cycle that requires progressively more money for more drugs or more possessions. Children whose identities become dependent upon drugs and possessions are at great risk of harming themselves or others.
To meet an immediate need or desire – Children who steal to meet an immediate need or
desire are responding to circumstances that they feel are beyond their control. Children may steal food if they are hungry or clothing to keep them warm when there is no other immediate
alternative. Peer pressure also can influence a child to steal an item, such as a popular piece of clothing, if everyone else in the peer group is wearing it. These children are seeking immediate gratification because they are unable to delay their needs.
To show off – Children sometimes try to impress their friends by showing off. Some children
engage in delinquent activities such as theft in an effort to prove to themselves or others how
bold and adventurous they are. The greater the risk involved in the theft, the more status they
receive from peers. The primary motive in this type of theft involves gaining the attention of
others, rather than the monetary value of the stolen item.*
*Adapted from our book, Juvenile Theft: Why Early Identification, Intervention & Treatment is Critical!