Kleptomaniacs, they are plagued by “recurrent, intrusive and irresistible urges or impulses” to steal unneeded objects. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Does your child have sticky fingers? Do you find unexplained knick-knacks in his or her possession? If so, it’s time for some hard questions including, is this penchant for gathering ‘gold’ actually kleptomania?

What exactly is kleptomania?

Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre Abu Dhabi, explains: “Depending on which diagnostic classification one uses, kleptomania is either placed under the category of ‘disruptive impulse-control and conduct disorder’ or ‘habit and impulse disorder’. Essentially, there are ‘recurrent, intrusive and irresistible urges or impulses’ to steal unneeded objects.”

What are some triggers that may lead to kleptomania in a child?

Dr Annette Du Bois, of UK-based confidence and emotions coaching Champs Academy, says: “All human behaviour is created because of a lack of or a need for something. In this instance, it could be the following:

  • Seeking attention.
  • Peer pressure, such as looking for acceptance or validation.
  • Resisting rules such as not being able to have what they want, etc.
  • The need for excitement or as a way of overcompensating or masking another negative feeling or emotion.”

What happens when a person wants to pilfer?

Dr Ahmed explains that when it comes to kleptomaniacs, they are plagued by “recurrent, intrusive and irresistible urges or impulses” to steal unneeded objects. “People affected will usually describe a sense of rising tension and build-up of anxiety leading up to the theft relieved by stealing. Patients will usually be distressed by the possibility of being apprehended, (some) experience guilt and shame, and there may be also signs of depression, anxiety, and personality disturbance in adults. This condition is akin to addictive behaviours and seen in forensic populations, but it is rare to encounter true kleptomania in apprehended youth and adults. Most adolescents who steal will do so in pairs or groups for ‘kicks’ or for material gains,” he says.

My child shoplifted, is he a kleptomaniac?

Not necessarily. Dr Ahmed says: “In contrast to usual shoplifters, people with kleptomania do not steal for personal gain and things stolen rarely have any personal value to the person – usually they are items that the affected individual can afford to buy. These items are then typically stored away, donated or gifted. Due to the shame associated, there is secrecy around the condition and patients do not readily seek help.”

Are a parent’s genes to blame?

Du Bois says: “There is no firm evidence or science to support either way. What's more likely is the negative behaviour is leant from other family members or peers. This may have manifested from small fibs or taking something at home that belongs to someone else, but deemed okay. It became a stepping stone to more serous impulses.”

What may cause a child to become a kleptomaniac?

“Kleptomania in children can be caused by psychological and biological reasons. Psychoanalysts write about the meaning of the act of stealing, the item stolen and the victim of the theft. Symptoms often coincide with periods of stress, loss or separations. Intellectual disability and other brain diseases can have an impact on impulse control, sometimes leading to kleptomania. Although kleptomania usually begins in childhood, most will outgrow this in adulthood,” says Dr Ahmed.

New York-based Flushing Hospital Medical Center explains on its website that “while the cause of kleptomania is not known, there are several theories suggest that changes in the brain may be at the root of kleptomania.” These include:

  • Low serotonin levels. Running low on this mood-regulating chemical is common in people who exhibit impulsive behaviours.
  • Addictive disorders. The way addiction works is, when indulging in the addictive act, the brain releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feeling rewarded; when it wears down, the person may feel the need to get a dopamine rush by re-indulging in the behaviour. Stealing may trigger the same impulses.
  • The brain’s opioid system. This system regulates a person’s urges, so having an imbalance may make it tougher to resist the act.

What's the worst thing you can do if a kid exhibits this behaviour and what's the best?

Du Bois’ list of don’ts:

  • Berate them or tell them they are bad. This inadvertently could trigger even more of the undesired behaviour.
  • Look at the behaviour as wrong, not the person.

Her list of dos:

  • Ascertain the motivation behind the behaviour and the secondary gain.
  • Tell them you love them as a person but not the behaviour they have demonstrated.
  • Show empathy and unconditional love filtered through the lens of experience.
  • Be calm but firm in your communication to let them know the seriousness of the situation. Help them see the wider consequences. Such as... if they stole from a shopkeeper, how would this affect them, etc?
  • Use contextual responses.
What does gender have to do with kleptomania?
Whether they are just better at getting caught or are greater in number, a paper in the ‘Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience, 2010’ shows that two-thirds of people with kleptomania are women.

Dr Ahmed adds: “Treatments are available but success depends upon patients’ motivation. Psychological therapies like insight-oriented psychotherapy may be helpful. Some individuals will respond to behaviour therapy. Some medicines and mood stabilisers have also been shown to be effective.”

Not every child who likes to carry things home will turn out to be a kleptomaniac, but there is something to be said for early intervention and rehabilitation.