Childhood Kleptomania: What It Is and How to Treat It

Childhood kleptomania produces an irresistible urge to steal and can worsen if left untreated. Here's how to detect and deal with it.
Childhood Kleptomania: What It Is and How to Treat It
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 26 May, 2023

When we talk about kleptomania, we think of a disorder that’s only seen in movies or in certain people that are far removed from us. We never imagine that our own children could fall into this category. However, according to the American Psychiatric Association, this condition affects between 0.3 and 0.6% of the general population and usually begins during childhood and adolescence. Therefore, it’s important for parents to know how to detect childhood kleptomania and what to do about it.

It’s worth mentioning that any theft committed by a child isn’t in itself an indicator of kleptomania. Therefore, if your child steals a piece of candy from a store or takes the money you had in your wallet, you shouldn’t assume that they’re a kleptomaniac. It’s important to address what happened by educating them on responsibility and values, but there’s no need to be alarmed.

What is child kleptomania?

Kleptomania is a rare but serious psychological disorder that consists of an uncontrollable impulse to steal objects. It’s included in the main diagnostic manual of psychiatry (DSM-V) under the heading “Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders“; and, as we said, it’s about more than simple theft.

In this case, the objects or money that are stolen aren’t needed by the person and aren’t appropriated for what they’re worth in monetary terms. This act isn’t committed as a form of revenge or as a consequence of an outburst of anger. What actually happens is that there’s a strong feeling of tension before committing the theft, which is only relieved by the gratification felt after committing it.

Furthermore, although there’s no known exact cause that leads to kleptomania, brain alterations have been found that may be at the bottom of the disorder. This is reported by Buzsik and Foila in their article published in 2021.

Specifically, in this condition, there seems to be an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters. On the one hand, people with kleptomania have been found to have low levels of serotonin, which sometimes improve with the use of drugs that regulate this pathway. On the other hand, the dopamine discharge produced by stealing and an imbalance in the brain’s opioid system may also play a role, making it difficult to control impulses.

A child looking out of the corner of his eyes and covering his mouth with both hands.
Children suffering from childhood kleptomania can’t control the impulse to steal.

If my child steals, do they suffer from kleptomania?

If your child has stolen objects or money on several occasions, you may be concerned that they have this diagnosis. However, there are certain characteristics that must be present in the child’s behavior to differentiate it from normal theft:

  • They steal objects that they don’t need, that have little value, or that they could easily obtain by other means. In addition, the child doesn’t use or enjoy the objects they steal but rather accumulates them, throws them away, or gives them away.
  • They feel a great deal of anxiety and strong internal tension just before stealing, but experience relief after stealing.
  • In spite of this, after committing the theft, they feel guilty, ashamed, and remorseful.
  • When they take money or objects, they do it alone and not in the company of other children. In addition, it’s not a planned or premeditated act, but rather an impulsive one.
  • They try to hide what’s happening to them and, even though they feel bad about it, they can’t help but continue stealing.
  • They commit theft in public places (stores or shopping malls), at home (stealing money from parents, for example), or at school (stealing money or objects from classmates).
A child sitting on the floor looking remorseful.
Although the child steals and feels relief, they still experience remorse after the act.

The treatment of childhood kleptomania

Remember that it’s rare to find cases of childhood kleptomania and, most of the time, theft is sporadic and due to other reasons. However, if you feel that the above descriptions identify your child’s situation, it’s crucial to seek professional help.

It’s very difficult for the family to handle the situation alone, as it’s not just a matter of instilling values, but of dealing with a real psychological disorder.

Although more research is still needed, cognitive behavioral psychotherapy seems to be the most effective approach to treating childhood kleptomania. This is what Kohn reports in his article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy. This technique helps children control their impulses, stop feeling pleasure when they steal, and acquire that gratification and excitement by other means.

In addition, we must take into account that kleptomania often presents comorbidities (i.e., other psychological illnesses that occur at the same time). Anxiety, depression, addictions, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others, overlap with the main one, so it will also be necessary to address them through psychotherapy. It’s even necessary to accompany them with medication in some cases. In any case, the collaboration of the family will be essential to implement the techniques suggested by the professional and stabilize the gains.

What should I do if my child steals?

If your child steals, you have to consider whether their actions meet the above criteria of kleptomania or not. As we said, the theft may be motivated by other causes and not by this disorder.

In any case, if you suspect that your child has childhood kleptomania, don’t overlook it and seek professional advice. If you fail to do so, the disorder may progress and worsen. And, if there are other reasons behind the behavior, a child psychologist may be able to guide you on the best course of action to take.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.