This lesson discusses what stealing is and how the person who is stealing can change their behavior. The reasons that a person steals are detailed along with interventions that friends, family, and therapists can use to control this behavior.

Justification for Stealing

The grocery store was where it all started. Claudia watched her mother sample the grapes as she walked through the produce section. Then she would get a package of juice boxes, hand one to Claudia and put the rest of the package in the cart. She watched her mother graze on fruit, chips, soda and many other items as she walked through the store. This taught Claudia that it was okay to take things as long as you didn’t take everything. Just take a couple of grapes, not the whole bunch. When Claudia questioned her mother about this, she said that the store wouldn’t miss a few items and their prices were too high anyway. Claudia learned that there was a justification for stealing. It was a lesson she took with her.

Why do People Steal?

There are many reasons why people start taking things that aren’t theirs, or stealing.

  • It could be as simple as little Claudia. Sometimes people are taught that some stealing is okay, and they generalize that notion.
  • Some people begin to steal for the thrill of it. There are famous Hollywood stars who have shoplifted even though they had plenty of money, perhaps because they were bored and needed some excitement.
  • It can also begin out of what seems like necessity. It may start with a loaf of bread or some needed change, but turn into much larger articles.
  • Stealing can also begin because people feel that they are entitled to something that has been denied to them.
  • There is a reward in stealing that can be attractive to some people. There are those who embark on a career of thievery simply as a business interest.
  • For some people, stealing is a compulsion that they can’t control.
  • Studies have found that a shoplifting addiction is often related to depression or anxiety. A depressed individual may have experienced a loss recently, so they steal for comfort. If the individual has anxiety related to their compulsion, they may steal to release some of the stress that causes them anxiety.

In each of these scenarios, the individual generally starts out by stealing on a small scale because of the risk involved and later moves onto greater risk-taking behavior. When theft becomes a way of life, it can be very difficult to stop until you are caught.

How to Stop Stealing

In general, people steal for one of two reasons. They either have an an irresistible desire known as a compulsion – which can be a learned behavior or the result of underlying causes – or stealing is their trade. In this second instance, the only reason a person will stop is when they are caught by the authorities. Of course, a career criminal could begin to feel guilty and choose to stop, but more often they are stopped by law enforcement.

The person who has a compulsion to steal will also usually continue to do so unless they are stopped by an outside force. People who are compulsive (due to kleptomania, a shoplifting addiction, or some other cause) have a difficult time arresting their negative behavior. Friends and family can intervene and try to help, but stopping usually requires therapeutic intervention.

Often people have a difficult time keeping what they are doing from friends and family, but those close to the person who steals may not want to acknowledge that there is a problem. However, if you are trying to help a loved one who you know steals habitually, try to find out the reason for their behavior. Do they need the things they steal? Are they doing it on a dare? Does your friend have a compulsion? If they need the items, consider helping them to find a way for them to purchase what they need, perhaps through financial counseling. If a dare is the reason, they may need to talk about the type of friendships they have. A therapist can help with a compulsion.

Therapists are trained to determine both the extent and the trauma associated with the need to steal. When a person has kleptomania, which is an irresistible need to steal that is classified as a disorder by the DSM-V, or a shoplifting disorder, they will likely need long-term therapy in order to stop. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in which the thoughts that lead to a behavior are changed so that the behavior is changed, is often used along with other types of therapy. A counselor can help the individual understand and change their compulsive behavior.

Lesson Summary

Stealing is a lifestyle that some people choose and others fall into. Unfortunately, it is not an easy thing to overcome, whatever the reason. People steal because they are taught to, for the thrill of it, out of necessity, to get something they feel they deserve, as a business venture, or because they feel a compulsion to steal.

Stopping this behavior may take an intervention from friends and family or, usually, from a therapist. Friends and family can help the individual by being supportive as they make the transition and by helping them find alternative coping mechanisms. A therapist may use a variety of therapies that have proved effective in treating the behavior and its underlying causes.