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Rite of Passage or Cry for Help?

Why Teens Shoplift
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Why Teens Shoplift continued...

Obviously, kids are driven to shoplift for more serious reasons, too. Teens may be acting out because of stress at home or because they feel unworthy, unattractive, or not accepted. They may be depressed, confused, or mad at the world. "Most teens know the difference between right and wrong, but if problems mount, they become vulnerable to temptation," Jones says.

There is also a big difference between the young adolescent who steals and an adolescent who is 15 and older, Wolf says. As teens grow older, they mature and think more about consequences. The temptation may still be there but the potential downside outweighs the benefits. "It would be a similar issue to a 3-year-old who is biting. I'm concerned. I don't like it," Wolf says. "But if a 12-year-old bites it's another story."

If a child is still shoplifting at 15 or older, it may be a sign of a conduct disorder or impulse control disorder known as kleptomania.

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.)

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