Finding your child has kleptomania can be devastating. The good news is that with awareness and expert guidance, you can help her get over this disorder. Read on to know more.
By Dr Manjiri Deshpande
Of late, your little one has been coming back from school with stationery that doesn’t belong to him. He has started taking extreme pleasure and satisfaction in hoarding things he doesn’t even require, lying blatantly to you when you question him about it.
If this act of stealing continues over a period, the problem has to be addressed medically. Your child might have fallen prey to a psychological condition known as kleptomania. If you notice your child constantly bringing home things that you know you haven’t bought for her, you need to raise an alarm. You must not keep quiet, for your silence may make the situation worse, encouraging your child to keep repeating the act.
While kleptomania in a young child can be difficult for you to handle as a parent, getting to know some of its symptoms will help you deal with the disorder better.
In fact, research has shown that individuals suffering from kleptomania are otherwise perfectly sane and don’t know that they are actually suffering from a medical disorder.
1. Do not punish; instead use positive reinforcement: A child with such tendencies first gets into the habit of taking things which don’t belong to him when he’s four or five years old. If you identify that your child has been doing such a thing, do not punish him. As a parent, you need to understand that kleptomania is a mental illness, not an illegitimate act. So, penalising him will do no good. Rather, you should explain to the child that what he has done is wrong. Ask him how he would feel if his things were stolen. Make him return whatever he has taken to the owner. If the item is broken or lost, make him buy a new one from his pocket money. Once he returns the item, praise him for it. Make sure that the mistake is rectified when you first see it – before it becomes a habit.
When your child engages in undesirable behavior, you must find out the reason behind it. Punishing the child will not help; in fact, it might make her more aggressive and defiant. Rather, finding out why she did something wrong and then discussing it with her will ensure she does not make the same mistake again. Children respond wonderfully to positive reinforcement. To bring about a positive change in your child, encourage, praise and reward her. Make sure you find something to reinforce positively in your child.
2. Encourage apologising and rectifying the act: When you realise that your child is stealing, you have to do all you can to make him understand that it is wrong to take something belonging to someone else. Let’s say you suddenly realise after coming out of the supermarket that your child has stuffed his pockets with bars of chocolate when you were not looking. What should you do? Take your child back into the store and make him give back the bars. Make him apologise. If he has already eaten some of the chocolate, ask him to pay for them.
If your child has taken something belonging to another child, sit her down and explain why what she has done is wrong. Tell her she should not take anyone else’s things without their permission. Get her to call her friend, explain, apologise and promise to return the object. If your child shows no signs of remorse or just doesn’t realise stealing is wrong, then you definitely need to take her to a mental health specialist.
Inculcating good habits in your child can’t be done in a day; it is an ongoing process. Children learn by observing their parents and from their parents’ reactions to their behaviour. Almost every child lies or takes things which are not his at least once. Whether it becomes a habit depends largely on how the parents handle it. Model good behaviour at home. The way you and your spouse interact at home influences the child a great deal. Parents are the best role models for the child. Make sure you praise good behaviour but never ignore bad behavior. If you feel your child’s behavioral problems are increasing, get help from a professional.
To sum up, with expert guidance and by properly educating the child about the various detrimental outcomes of stealing, you can definitely help your child get over this disorder. So take heart!
Dr Manjiri Deshpande Shenoy is a Pediatric Psychiatrist who heads ICGC (Indlas Child Guidance Clinic) which is a one stop centre for all kinds of emotional, behavioral, academic and adjustment problems of children and adolescents at Sakinaka, Mumbai.
Following her Fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, she worked for one year at Nair Hospital as Senior Resident.
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