What to say to your child after he or she was caught shoplifting.

Q. My 14-year-old daughter was caught shoplifting this weekend at the mall. She'd shoved a few lipsticks and hair clips into her bag and was caught by the store's security guards. They gave her a warning and called me to come get her, but didn't press charges.

I'm mortified by this! We're lenient with allowance, and she's never had a problem with stealing before. What do I say to her about this, and is there anything I should be saying to her younger brother (10) to keep him out of this kind of trouble?

A. First of all, you're not alone. According to Shoplifters Alternative, a national nonprofit research and rehabilitation program, there are about 23 million shoplifters in our nation today, and one-quarter are teenagers. But since it's your child who was caught, these statistics likely don't bring solace. You might be feeling that you've failed as a parent and that your daughter is doomed to an adolescent life of delinquency.

Rest assured that since your child was caught (and doesn't have a history of stealing), the embarrassment and shame she suffered will likely end her days as a shoplifter.

Because the stolen merchandise was returned and she received what was probably an intimidating talk by the security guards, there's no need to lecture your daughter. She knows what she did was wrong; she now needs to wallow in her misery and guilt silently without you lecturing or exploding. The most you need to say is, "I'm extremely disappointed; you know that it is wrong to steal. I expect that you'll never do it again. Shoplifting is totally unacceptable within our family and this community." Do not then repeatedly bring up the situation: It's time to wipe her shoplifting slate clean.

Preventing Future Shoplifting Incidents

With regards to your younger son, rather than simply hope he will never shoplift, try a proactive approach. Talk about the temptation he might feel when shopping to slip an item in his pocket. Tell him of his sister's episode with shoplifting. By engaging in this conversation, you are not putting ideas in your son's head. Such thoughts cross even the most moral child's mind. Besides, if he's a child who would never shoplift, talking about it won't do any harm.

One role of parents is to prepare their children for the new environments they'll encounter. Going shopping without a parent is one such new experience. So when your son goes off to the mall alone or with a friend, that's the time to tell him about store security systems, the legal consequences of stealing, and that it's wrong to take something that belongs of another, even if it's a large merchandise corporation. Many teens justify shoplifting because they believe that the store is a big impersonal corporation with lots of merchandise, therefore, it will never miss a little something taken by them.

Some teens make shoplifting a habit. They're rebellious and thrill-seeking, or want things that they can't afford and that their parents can't or won't buy them. They want something but don't have the maturity to develop a plan to earn the needed money. Your job is to teach your children to resist the immature notion of instant gratification that comes from shoplifting.

If shoplifting becomes a persistent problem with either of your children, it's definitely time to seek professional help. You alone won't be able to punish away the inclination to steal.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, August 2006.

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