Sue Scheff: When Your Teen is Caught Shoplifting

By Patricia Smith
You answer the phone and cringe. Your 14 year-old son walked out of Martin’s Market with a six-pack of Pepsi under his jacket without paying, so says Officer Jones on the other end of the line. Driving to the market to retrieve your son and face Mr. Martin, you wonder, is shoplifting just kid stuff? Or is my son diving headlong into a life of crime?

Take a deep breath. Most likely, this first shoplifting incident doesn’t signal trouble ahead. Even though your son had plenty of change in his pocket and Pepsi in the fridge, doesn’t mean he’s leaving your family to join the Sopranos.

Shoplifting is sometimes viewed as an adolescent rite of passage, albeit an illegal one. The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) reports that 24% of apprehended shoplifters are teens, aged 13-17 years old. Teens steal on an impulse or for a thrill. Peer pressure is often cited as the reason. While you might feel motivated to send your son to the doghouse, even McGruff the Crime Dog, icon of the NCPC, recommends that you don’t overreact to the first offense. That said, do take the following steps to convey your concern to your child:

Decide on the consequences beforehand. One in four shoplifters caught is a teen. Think about how you’d handle things if your child was caught shoplifting. Be sure to share your thoughts with your spouse. It’s important to present a united front if an incident does occur.

Remain calm at the scene of the crime. Confronting your child will only add to the humiliation and embarrassment he is probably feeling. Get all the facts. Listen to the authorities and agree to take an active role in the solution.
Allow a cooling off period. Best not to unload on your son the minute you reach your driveway.
Take time, at least a day, to let everyone cool off before discussing the incident. Present corrective action in a timely manner. Lay out the consequences to your son as soon as possible.
If too much time passes, the consequences won’t connect to the action. Be firm, but caring.
Follow through. Important life lessons will be lost if you don’t follow through on your disciplinary actions. Keep your word.

Shoplifting is a serious offense, but most teens are experimenting when they try it—never believing they’ll get caught. When they are, they feel remorse and seldom repeat the offense. So take those sticky fingers seriously, but know that you probably don’t have a future mobster on your hands—just a child who needs help learning from his mistakes.