“I used to steal a lot when I was younger. I know now that it was a by-product of my own dysregulation. I would steal anything. It did matter what it was. It was a physiological payoff for the moment, but 5 or 10 minutes later, the rush wore off, and more stress set in as the worry about getting caught only added to my state of dysregulation”.
Children with traumatic stress histories steal to try to ease their internal state of dysregulation. It is the same as with any addictive behaviour. As soon as children take something that does not belong to them, they get an enormous chemical reaction. – rush or release.
This reaction varies from person to person. For example, boys tend toward a hyper-aroused state, which is similar to the rush that comes from cocaine-a stimulant. In girls, the reaction is more likely to be a hypo aroused state which is more like the release that comes from heroin- a suppressant.
As children repeat the addictive behaviour, their system becomes conditioned to that behaviour. Such a child then believes that all he needs to do is put that object in his pocket in order for everything to be okay – at least for these 5 minutes. When the dysregulation returns a few minutes later, the child may steal again and again.
Children also steal a specific environment as a reaction to certain events. A child who steals from the teacher’s desk, for example, is likely to steal from that teacher’s desk more than any other place in the classroom because of conditioning. A child may steal in a store because they are triggered from the stress of going from the car to the store, or it may be a result of overwhelming stimulation in the store environment. Parents are usually unaware that something as innocuous as going to store can be enormously stressful for a child, particularly a child with trauma background. Think of it for a moment. For example, if a child were passed from one foster family to another before being adopted, any kind of change in environment might trigger dysregulation.
A 17 years old girl once said “I’m terrified going into stores. I felt like I am going to walk into the store and knock over something, and everyone is going to stare at me” this powerful piece of relationship – transforming information.
If your child developed the habit of stealing in an effort to re-regulate, there are steps you can take that are very effective in helping the child stop the addictive behaviour.
Here are some steps to help your child stop stealing:
First, you must make sure that you are in a calm state yourself. Then, from a very non blaming place, say to your child: “when you get stressed out, you have a tendency to put thing in your pocket that don’t belong to you, and the reason you do that is because it makes you feel good. So, come to me when you are stressed out or scared. When you put thing in your pocket that don’t belong to you, it hurts other people, and that might lead them to get angry with you. But I need you to understand that I know when you steal it is because you are scared or stressed out. So, when we go to the store, I am going to keep you close by me”
This process creates a container for the child, helping to alleviate the feeling of threat that cause stealing behaviour.
Instead of becoming soothed by the rush or release of stealing, your child is soothed by your non blaming presence. In this way, you also lessen the sensory input that can be overwhelming in a store environment. Keeping the child close to you helps the child to feel safe, and this reduces the incidents of stealing not because you are watching, but because you are creating a state of regulation for your child.
Another strategy you can apply like:
Practice going to the store or wherever the child is prone to stealing. Remember that we regress when we’re stressed, so a child who steals is regressing to a younger age in those moments. Tell your child that you will hold her/his hand at first. Holding your child’s hand can help create a state of regulation. That skin to skin contact is very comforting, and people experience have found that even teenagers are often willing to do this. When a parent offers a hand, the child unconsciously feels safer.
The next week, your child will stand near you. Later, you will be no more than five feet away. In this way, you are building up your child’s ability to tolerate these environments and lessens the stress. Of course, if any of these steps prove to be too much for your child at any time, stop and go back to the previous step.
Don’t rush the process. If holding hands is too stressful, going into store may be too stressful just yet. Remain as patient as necessary.
If your child is old enough, you can ask how she/he is feeling as you are taking steps towards the store. Focus less on the behaviour of stealing and more on the emotions that are leading to the behaviour. This will help you get to the root cause of the stress.
At first, practice going to the store without shopping. You don’t have to buy anything. Hold the child’s hand from the car to the store, walk down the aisle, and walk back out. Then, try it in another day or so. Gradually, you can work up to spending more time in the store.
People experience, when your child experience regulation in a situation where dysregulation is common, the body/mind system can develop rapidly. In 14 to 30 days, there can be 50% reduction in stealing behaviour, if not a total elimination of it.