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Teen Shoplifting: Causes and Consequences

Shoplifting: A Sign of Deeper Problems

"Kids who engage in minor forms of delinquency are at increased risk for other, worse criminal behavior," says Joseph P. Allen, PhD. "There's also a connection to alcohol and substance abuse, and unprotected sex." Ask your pediatrician for a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist if your teen:

—Steals from family or peers

—Continues taking things even after being caught

—Starts at 13 or under

—Is already in other trouble, for fighting, truancy or poor school performance

Your Kid Shoplifted: What Now?

Discovering that your child has been caught shoplifting requires a careful response.

1. Ask what happens next: Find out if your child will be charged and whether he needs to appear in court. Even without the legal system involved, expect that he'll be banned from that store or chain and that his name will be entered into a database shared by the retail industry. You probably will also have to pay a fine. "Stores usually expect reimbursement for their trouble as well as for the stolen merchandise," says Joseph LaRocca of the National Retail Federation. The additional sum is usually a few hundred dollars. (Court fees tend to be about the same.)

2. Hold off on reacting: Avoid any important conversation until you've cooled off. "Yelling in front of strangers won't accomplish much," says Jen Gustafson, a social worker who counsels Minneapolis teens. "And you'll probably say things you don't mean, or issue punishments you can't enforce. Stating, 'I'm so upset I can't talk to you right now' will buy you time to plan out appropriate consequences."

3. Discuss trust: When you're ready to talk, clearly let your teen know that she has lost your trust. "Kids need to hear how angry and disappointed you are," Gustafson says. And they also need to know they can earn back your confidence by responsibly making the amends the courts (if the case went that far) and you have laid out. You might ban shopping trips for a set period, give extra chores and schedule additional volunteer work. Also set up a plan for your child to repay you for any expenses.

4. Make sure your teen understands the law: If the store presses charges, author Sandra Simkins suggests hiring a lawyer. But tell your child this doesn't mean he's getting off. "Explain that once he's been arrested," says George Kapalka, PhD, "he has crossed an important line where you can't shelter him."

5. Maintain perspective: "Children need to know that even though shoplifting isn't life or death, it's a big deal," says Barbara Staib of NASP, "and their job is to learn from their mistakes." The good news is that for most families the episode passes quickly—in fact, only 1.6 percent of kids who attend court-ordered programs shoplift again.

Agonizing Decision: You Caught Your Teen

Should you turn her in to the store? Barbara Staib of NASP suggests calling the loss-prevention department to make sure it won't go to one of two extremes—pressing charges or brushing it off by saying, "Oh, don't worry about it." Once you've established the situation will be handled appropriately, accompany your child to the store and have her either return the items or pay for them. Social worker Jen Gustafson also suggests that you have your child write a short letter of apology and read it out loud to the manager. "That's a very humbling, powerful experience," she says. Staib advises against bringing in the police. "Education is the ideal response," she says. "You can't force kids not to steal. But if you make them understand why it's a bad idea, most will arrive at the correct conclusion on their own."

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.