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Teen Shoplifting: Causes and Consequences

Prevention Plan

Teen shoplifting is common, but it's not a rite of passage. Like other bad behavior, it can be headed off, and education is the way to hold kids to high standards.

Teach on the spot. When you're in a store with your child, occasionally point out the many ways—cameras, magnetic tags, security guards—that the facility keeps an eye on everyone. Mention that stealing is not only wrong, but people who take things can be arrested, banned from stores and malls, have their picture displayed in public, and be sent to court and sometimes even to jail.

Focus on the victims. Kids often think, "What's the big deal?" A monstersize store can spare a few pairs of jeans. Explain how retailers have to charge more to compensate for theft, and that many little shops go out of business because losses cut so deeply into their income. Point out the social consequences too: Since sales tax isn't collected for stolen items, schools and fire departments are shorted, says Joseph LaRocca, a security expert for the National Retail Federation. You might think teens would roll their eyes at these appeals to fairness, but, in fact, most respond positively. For that reason, juvenile courts often require adolescents to face the ones they've harmed. "We had one kid whose mom, a single parent, had recently lost her job," says Ruffini. "He had to listen to an unemployed woman, also a single mom, explain how she was laid off, in part because of theft. They both wound up in tears."

Monitor their stuff. Keep up with day-to-day changes in what children are wearing, and periodically scan the house for new clothes, CDs, DVDs, video games, electronics and jewelry, suggests Allen. "When kids know you'll say, 'Where did you get that?' they're less likely to take something," he says. If you suspect your child may have stolen, ask follow-up questions in a matter-of-fact tone. "You don't want to make your child feel you don't trust her or that you expect her to take things because other kids do," says George M. Kapalka, PhD, author of Parenting Your Out of Control Child. "Adolescents naturally distance themselves from parents, and you run the risk of pushing them further away." You also don't want them to end up thinking, "They don't trust me anyway, so I might as well do whatever I feel like."

Talk about values. Just as you periodically remind kids about your rules on drugs and alcohol, offer a few words about shoplifting from time to time. It might come up in the news, or they could bring it up in conversation—according to NASP, 89 percent of teens know kids who've stolen. Certainly, advises Bernstein, when your teen is off to the mall without you, say something like, "I'm giving you more freedom. That also means more responsibility. I'm counting on you to do the right thing and to behave in a way that is honest and doesn't hurt other people."