Q: “How Do I Set Boundaries with a Child Who Steals?”
“Children with ADHD thrive on structure. So set boundaries and clear expectations regarding personal belongings, e.g., what is and isn’t allowed to be taken without permission.”
“Q: “My 8-year-old daughter takes things that aren’t hers, such as jewelry, nail polish, food, trinkets, art supplies, books, and recently a used female napkin. Why is this happening, and how can I help her?” – MyMiniMe
It’s not uncommon for children with ADHD, especially your daughter’s age, to exhibit impulsive behaviors such as stealing.
Children are curious creatures. Their natural inclination to explore helps them understand the world around them. Your daughter’s interest in the used feminine napkin (I know, I know.) may stem from her curiosity about the human body and its functions. While it may seem inappropriate to us as adults, remember that kids often lack the knowledge and understanding of what is considered “acceptable behavior” surrounding these matters.
What is driving her inclination to take other items without permission? Sometimes, children take things because they find them appealing or interesting or simply enjoy the thrill of having something they shouldn’t. They may be seeking attention, or they want to assert their independence.
ADHD can lead to impulse control and attention difficulties. Children may struggle with resisting the immediate desire for an item without considering the consequences.
Here are strategies for setting boundaries addressing the impulsive behavior that may lead to stealing.
Set Clear Boundaries
Children with ADHD thrive on structure. So establish clear expectations and boundaries regarding personal belongings, e.g., what is and isn’t allowed to be taken without permission. In an open, calm, non-confrontational manner, explain why taking things without asking is inappropriate and consistently reinforce your boundaries and expectations. Remember to use age-appropriate or “child-led” language so that she understands the consequences if boundaries are not respected.
Offer Alternative Outlets
Provide your daughter with appropriate opportunities to explore her interests and curiosity. For example, if she enjoys drawing or painting, set up a designated area in your home brimming with art and craft supplies where she can freely create and express herself. Or designate a drawer or shelf in the kitchen with her go-to snacks and treats.
You can also create a “belongings” box filled with special and unique items your daughter treasures. Encourage her to use it as her “go-to” whenever she wants to take items that don’t belong to her. Hopefully, this will satisfy her curiosity when the need to explore takes over.
You may not think this matters, but it’s important for your daughter to think about how her actions might affect others. Help her to develop a sense of empathy by discussing how it would feel if someone took her things without asking.
And make sure to model appropriate behaviors. Demonstrate respectful and considerate behavior in your own actions. Children learn by observing their parents and caregivers!
Use Positive Reinforcement and Rewards
When your daughter asks for permission before taking something or respects your boundaries, acknowledge and praise her for making the appropriate choice. Children with ADHD are unfortunately used to hearing so many negative messages about their behavior that positive reinforcement can go a long way in shaping desired ones.
Hopefully, these suggestions provide a starting point to help you navigate your daughter’s behavior. Remember to take it slow, as finding the right strategies that work for her may take time. Use trial and error, praise positive behavior, and rest assured that you’re doing an incredible job as a parent by wanting to understand and support your daughter’s actions.
How to Set Boundaries: Next Steps
- Download: ADHD Discipline Strategies
- Learn: Why Praise Is So Important for Children with ADHD
- Q: Why Is My Child Lying to Me About Everything?
ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.
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