Why Do Children Lie, Cheat, and Steal?

Know a few little delinquents? Don’t get out the handcuffs (yet)—it’s normal. With some shrewd police work, you can get to the bottom of why they’re committing those petty crimes.

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When to Be Concerned

At what point should lying, cheating, and stealing really bother a parent? There are no definitive answers here: It’s a combination of the frequency of the behavior and the seriousness of the offense.

That said, here are some factors to keep in mind, according to Sarah Trosper, Ph.D., a child psychologist with the New York University Child Studies Center, in New York City.

Pattern. “If it’s happening constantly, in numerous situations, that’s worrisome,” says Trosper. Is your child lying to you and the babysitter and Grandpa and her teachers? Also, take note if the bad behavior occurs along with emotional outbursts or other problematic behaviors, like intense tantrums or back talk.

Reaction. Does your child seem ashamed when you explain why the behavior is wrong? “It’s troubling if your child reacts in a callous or unemotional way,” says Trosper, “or if he keeps breaking the rules after you’ve talked about ways to solve the problem. For example, he’s been stealing other kids’ toys and you’ve discussed sharing instead.”

Other life stressors. Lying, cheating, and stealing can arise in times of tension (during a divorce, for instance), when kids are prone to acting out. Trosper says, “If it goes on for an extended period or starts to cause stress for the whole family, it would be wise to get help from a therapist.”

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