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What to do when ADHD and stealing collide

We are revisiting our series of articles on ADHD from Sarah Templeton today – the owner of  Headstuff ADHD Therapy. She has written two amazing books to help and support teachers and parents, which you can check out below. She has helped us with a number of articles on site, so do check out the other ADHD resources for parents and teachers too if you have time. Today, Sarah is talking to us about ADHD and stealing – and specifically what to do when / if it happens with your ADHD child.

First of all, she says, don’t panic.

If you find out that your child, however young, has started swiping sweeties from the sweet shop, or sneaking a toy off a shop shelf, the very first thing you need to understand is that this is incredibly common with ADHD children. Not all ADHD children steal, but a lot of them do and I include myself in that number.

The very youngest age I’ve heard of an ADHD child stealing is three.

The mother was absolutely mortified when she realised her three-year-old son had been helping himself to things off the shelf in a supermarket, and only when she was putting him into the car, did she realise he had filled his pushchair up with several items she hadn’t paid for!

So, if we accept that most ADHD children will go through a patch of stealing, it’s very important to know why.

These are she believes, the main reasons a lot of ADHD kids start pilfering and often from a very young age. The average time to start is somewhere between eight and eleven. Sarah has counselled  hundreds of ADHD young people and teenagers over the years, and these are the most common reasons they told her they have started to steal:

1. It’s exciting and adrenaline giving

ADHD kids will do a lot of things because it gives them a buzz, a thrill and is exciting. Taking something they really want without the shopkeeper noticing will give them a huge adrenaline rush,

2. They want everything immediately

ADHD kids are VERY impatient. If they want something, they want it right NOW. They certainly don’t want to wait for their birthday or Christmas to have it, and they also don’t want to save up and buy it in three months.  If they want something, the ADHD brain wants it immediately so the obvious answer is to just take it,

3. They are bored and want something to do

I’ve worked with a lot of young offenders in prison, who have admitted that they stole purely to relieve the boredom and “because there was nothing else to do”.

4. They like pushing boundaries

Anything you tell an ADHD child not to do, their brain automatically wants to do it. So if you are doing your weekly shop and your ADHD child is whingeing that they want a treat and you say “no, there isn’t one today, because you had one last week” automatically their brain is going to think “how can I get what I want”? And they will push any boundary to get it.

5. Their brain is both impulsive and doesn’t think of consequences

If they walk past a shiny new toy that catches their eye, they will impulsively grab it and shove it up their jumper, hoping that nobody is watching and their brain will not automatically think of the consequence of their actions.

They won’t give a thought to the fact that they’ve got to get it out of the jumper and into their bedroom without anybody noticing they’ve taken it.

There are probably other reasons why some ADHD kids steal things, but these really are the main ones.

The good news is this is usually just for a short patch.

For Sarah it was. She only stole when aged around 12 to 13. This was primarily sweets and chocolate – once a week from the newsagent when we stopped to collect our family comics and magazines. In fact, the editor of KiddyCharts, Helen, can attest to this. She was the same, and stole for a limited period of time too, probably at about the same age, and the same things too!

Sarah had the most incredible adrenaline rush from filling pockets with as many bars of chocolate as she possibly could. She’s pretty sure this went on for a number of weeks but doesn’t think it was many months before she realised it wasn’t the brightest idea.

Luckily, her school called the police in to give the whole school a talk about the effect of a criminal record on our future career and travel plans. That put her off for good.

What to do if ADHD and stealing occurs?

Sarah recommend parents sit down as soon as possible with the child and as non-judgementally as possible explain that you know they have started to take things without paying for them and the sooner they stop this, the better the chance they have of not being caught.

You don’t need to scare them to death and don’t recommend call the police, but do have a grown-up chat with them about the consequences of their actions.

They need to know that if they are caught – any shopkeeper could call the police, and even if they are young teenagers, they can still get taken to court which will affect the whole of the rest of their life.

Most 13-year-olds will not have thought about having a caution or a criminal record that will impact on whether they can go to America or not.  It won’t have entered their head.

You need to have a very grown-up conversation with them about how you understand stealing is quite typical for ADHD children, but you can’t let it go on because you are very concerned for them and their future.

How do you approach to topic?

Always come at it in a positive way rather than a telling off way, making it very clear you are on their side and you don’t want this activity to impact their future.

You want to do your very best to help them stop stealing and assure them you are on their side and not judging them. This way you have the best chance of stopping the behaviour.

Encourage Saturday jobs

One thing Sarah has found from working with Young Offenders is that none of them had Saturday jobs or ways of earning their own money. If your child is old enough, encourage them to get an after-school or weekend part-time job.

If they are too young for that, get them doing odd jobs for you in the house or the garden that you pay them for. ADHD children want things and usually those things cost money. Help them earn money to buy things by utilising their skills around the home.

Sarah can’t reiterate enough how much you need to be on their side and wanting to curb their behaviour, so they don’t have any restrictions on what work they can do and where they can travel to when they are older. She has worked with teenagers who have been banned from going to America and had they known this before, is quite sure they would have stopped stealing.

It’s very important you do your research and know how their activities are going to impact their future life. If you are on their side and tackling this together, you can stop the stealing before it becomes a major problem.

We really hope that this article has been helpful to you if ADHD and stealing occurs with your children. The key thing is don’t panic, and talk in a measured and non-judgemental way with your children. Know that you aren’t allow, and most importantly, know that this isn’t personal. if your children steal from you, they aren’t doing it because they hate you, or they don’t care. They are doing it because of some of the reasons above, and mostly because they really haven’t thought it through at all.

Do check out some of the other articles in our ADHD resources for parents and teachers, including these perhaps:

Articles on ADHD from KiddyCharts Part 2

Here are some more articles on ADHD from Sarah on the site - check these out, and see if they help you a little more.

There are other articles off site as well:

More ADHD articles from the internet

Here are some more articles from the internet that are about ADHD. Why not check these out too?

We really hope that this all helps, why not sign up to our newsletter as we will be publishing more on this in the future. We also have loads of activities and ideas to keep ADHD busy brains active too!

Thanks so much for stopping by, and see you again soon.


Helen is a mum to two, social media consultant, and website editor; and this site is (we think) the only Social Enterprise parenting magazine! Since giving up being a business analyst when juggling travel, work and kids proved too complicated, she founded KiddyCharts so she could be with her kids, and use those grey cells at the same time. KiddyCharts has reach of over 1.1million across social and the site. The blog works with big family brands (including travel) to help promote their services, as well as offering free resources to parents of kids under 10. It gives 51%+ profits to Reverence for Life, who fund a number of important initiatives in Africa, including bringing running water and basic equipment to a school in Tanzania. Helen has worked as a digital marketing consultant (IDM qualified) with various organisations, including Channel Mum, Truprint, Talk to Mums, and Micro Scooters. She loves to be creative in the brand campaigns she works on. Get in touch TODAY!

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