My child is stealing things ...

Two similar requests for advice came in recently:

Q: My teenage daughter has occasionally "borrowed" secretly from her older sister for the past 10 years. When confronted and forced to return the items, she is sheepish and never offers an explanation. Her sister gets quite angry and wants me and her mother to "do something." Any suggestions?

Q: I just found out that my daughter and some friends had been implicated in several thefts from classrooms at her elementary school. She admitted taking things, but can't seem to explain why she did it. I've talked to her for hours, taken away privileges, and imposed consequences. What else should I do to make sure this never happens again?

A: I volunteer for our local Restorative Justice (RJ) program, and I find several of the RJ principles to be very useful in parenting. More likely than not I have distorted these concepts for my own purposes by now, so you may want to google Restorative Justice to learn about them in their purest form ...

I believe that Restorative Justice has its roots in the aboriginal tribes of New Zealand. When an offense such as theft, vandalism, or violence occurs, harm is done ... not only to the victim, but also to the offender and the community at large.

A Restorative Justice circle brings together the offender and the victim in a supportive gathering with members of the community and a facilitator or moderator. The purpose of the meeting is to define what harms have occurred and to whom, and then to determine how these harms will be repaired so that the victim feels satisfied and the offender can once again be welcomed back as a contributing member of the community.

It's different from the traditional judicial system in that the offender and victim actually face each other and have a dialogue. The discussion is focused quite specifically on identifying and repairing the harm, rather than doling out punishment or unrelated consequences.

By the end of the meeting, everyone in the circle understands how the offense impacted everyone else, and together they have all come up with a plan for repairing the damage (which can be emotional as well as financial and material.) The circle agrees that after the harms have been repaired, the offender's slate will be cleared, and he or she will be re-embraced as a contributing member of the community.

I'm not surprised that these girls can't give logical explanations for their behavior. The rational part of our brains that takes care of impulse control and anticipates consequences doesn't wire in completely until the mid-twenties. Kids simply do stupid, impulsive things sometimes. You may never get a more satisfying explanation than that. They truly may not know why they did it.

(Although in the sibling theft situation, I might sit down with her and make it very safe for her to express her feelings about her older sister. It may be that she misses her and wants a sort of 'souvenir', or she may feel some jealousy or resentment of her. It's worth checking out, anyhow. Unexpressed feelings sometimes come out sideways as inappropriate actions.)

These episodes of stealing might be perfect for the Restorative Justice model of intervention. Here's how that might look: Call a meeting with the victim, the offender, the parents, the teachers, and anyone else who may have been impacted by the thefts. Arrange the chairs in a circle. Go around the circle, allowing each person to speak without interruption about how they were affected by the thefts.

For example, the victim might share the significance the stolen objects had to her as well as their monetary value; her feelings of betrayal of trust; the fear that now makes her think twice before leaving anything unlocked; or things like that.

The community or family members might talk about feeling guarded and on edge, and wondering who they can trust. The offender might share her regret, her embarrassment, her confusion about her motives, and what consequences she has already experienced since it happened (i.e. all the kids at school hide their stuff from me and no one will talk to me anymore.)

Ideally, someone will be taking notes. When everyone has spoken about how the offense impacted them, the notes can be read out loud to review. For the next round around the circle, folks talk about what they think would be appropriate ways to repair the harm.

The victim might say she'd like the object replaced, or to be compensated for the value of it, with some extra included for her time and energy. She may also request some sort of personal apology, although often the offender has already offered that sincerely and spontaneously after hearing about the harm she has caused.

The family/community might ask for some community service to be done so that they can again trust the offender to make positive contributions. The offender contributes ideas about how she can make amends as well. It can be very healing for the victims to see the offender taking responsibility in this way. Offenders are often quite eager to make amends, and grateful for the opportunity to do so.

Once again, the suggestions for repairing the harm and making amends are read out loud. Then there is some open discussion about what is reasonable and necessary to repair the harm -- which includes restoring faith in the offender, and bringing peace to the hearts and minds of the victims. The idea is that this is a collaborative group effort, so everyone contributes.

It's optimal if the repair part of this process can leverage the offender's strengths. The idea is NOT to make the amends be painful or punitive, but to allow the offender to do something useful. For example, if the offender loves to clean, than perhaps restitution can be paid with several hours of cleaning. If she hates to clean, but loves to babysit, then babysitting to pay off her debt makes better sense.

Something magical happens during this process. After that first round, when everyone has had a chance to be heard, the entire group unites as a team to find a solution and restore good faith in each other. The offender no longer feels like a terrible person who will be cast as the "bad guy" forever, because she has a concrete plan for redeeming herself. The victim feels closure and can move on.

Please let me know if you'd like some help with this process, and I'd be happy to schedule a parenting consultation with you.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

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