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Rite of Passage or Cry for Help?

Why Teens Shoplift

What to Do?

Shoplifting may be common, but that doesn't mean it should be treated lightly. If you suspect that your child is stealing, it is time for a serious talk. Children need to know that stealing can lead to consequences far worse than being grounded, including juvenile detention centers or prison and a permanent mark on their record. If you're certain the merchandise is stolen, encourage them to take it back. If it's a first-time offense, most businesses will accept a teen's apology and won't press charges.

Nancy Gannon, executive deputy director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, says that in most states, kids can be criminally prosecuted and retailers can demand and collect financial damages in civil court. But cases involving first offenders are often remanded to juvenile conference committees or teen courts in which teen volunteers decide real cases involving teen defendants. (There are some 500 teen courts in 45 states.)

"One major principle of juvenile courts is to give children who've made a mistake a second chance," Gannon says. At the same time, the courts want kids to understand the consequences of wrongdoing and to make amends. In the case of shoplifting, a teenager might be asked to meet with the storeowner. He might be fined or be assigned community service work. (Crimes that involve serious offenses, such as weapons possession, are remanded to adult courts.)

Repeat offenders are arrested and may be confined for a period of time. If shoplifting keeps happening, the court would order a psychological assessment and further explore the child's life. "Is he stealing because he's hungry or is this an impulse control problem? Is the child on drugs?" Gannon says.

For most teenagers, simply getting caught acts as a deterrent. The best thing a parent can do is to convey to the child the risks of wrongdoing. Wolf says the message goes something like this: "'You are now dealing with something outside of the safe and protective confines of family. We cannot protect you and you are putting yourself at risk. ' That's the main message you want to get across, and with the majority of kids it will work."

If the problem continues or if it's accompanied by other destructive behaviors -- a sullen or violent manner, falling grades, suspected substance abuse -- you may need to consider seeking professional help.

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