“Dear TMT - I am wondering if you have any advice to give about dealing with one of our children who "borrows" things from siblings without asking. The siblings are really becoming annoyed because the "taker" does not share her own things but feels that everyone should share with her. We have talked about how she would not like it, how it is wrong, and she grudgingly admits this, but does not change behavior. All four of our children were adopted at the same time, and are chronologically right on top of each other. We have tried to use something "important" to the taker as the consequence for this behavior, but have not come up with anything that seems to work. Hoping for any wisdom or insight you might have. Many thanks, Sandy”
Wow Sandy, that’s rough. We’ve been through some of that kind of thing around here. You might want to read some of my earlier posts on stealing and lying. We stopped allowing anyone to call taking someone else's property without permission “borrowing” and called it what it was – stealing. If you or I “borrowed” our next door neighbor’s car without asking them, and without them giving us permission to do so, they would have every right to report us to the police for grand theft auto – whether we returned the vehicle or not. So, my first suggestion (since you asked – wink, wink) is to call the action what it is. Your daughter is stealing.
As therapeutic parents, our first and foremost act of love, including discipline as love, is to CONNECT. (See yesterday’s post on Dr. Michael Popkin’s FLAC method of dealing with behavior issues.) Our traumatized kids often feel as though they are missing out somehow – on something. My daughter, when she is dysregulated will tell us we do not love her because we have not given her some of the possessions her older brothers have. Youngest Son went through some of the same kind of crud last year. He was stealing iPods, his adult brother’s external hard drive, computer equipment, wires out of drawers in my office, flash drives, and pretty much anything else he thought he could use to rig up his hidden computer lab – while also stealing internet connection from a neighbor that used our street name as their network password. (Youngest Son is quite cleaver.)
It was really, really hard. I wanted to whomp him upside the head, but he needed connection. He needed to feel safe, no matter what, before I could ever teach him anything, and before he could ever understand the restitution and restoration he had to do to make things right in the community and in our home.
Some people teach parents of traumatized kids to hide any anger from their child while reassuring them they are loved. After all, it is about them and not about us. Ehh, I'm not so hip on that -- not in all cases, anyhow.
I don’t know how old your children are. Mine were nine and 12 years old when they came home. They are 13 and 16 now. Their birthdays are in the summer, so they’ll be 14 and 17 all too soon for my liking. Our fifth year anniversary home will be in August 2012.
With Youngest Son, I felt as though I didn’t have a whole lot of time left to teach him that stealing was not only wrong, but that it could land him in heaps of trouble. So while I reassured him I loved him no matter what – that he was my son no matter what, his behavior was not something I loved. In fact, I hated it. I would not accept it. It embarrassed me and made me quite angry. I would not allow him to continue on that path by “fixing” things for him and letting him be the victim, or the "poor little orphan boy who didn't know better."
When I found he'd stolen the iPods, he returned them to authority figures in the places he “found” them. (He has never yet admitted to stealing them, but we still call it what it is. He didn’t “find” them.) We involved the school police officer in one case. Youngest Son got a lecture about jail, and I told him I would not bail him out if he got arrested. I meant it. I still do. As for the internet usage, I marched him across the street and had him tell the neighbor they needed to change their password to something a lot less easy to guess. His relationship with his older brother suffered for quite a while. This adult son is my most easy-going of the older children, but even easy-going people don’t like to have their stuff taken. Thankfully, Youngest Son got it - eventually. We didn’t let it go. We talked about it again and again. We took opportunity to discuss it when we saw "stupid criminals" on the evening news or when some other kid got in trouble at school. We talked about choices. We talked about consequences. We talked about the real world – and that people in the world were not going to give him the benefit of the doubt he'd gotten in the past in therapy and at home. We talked about how he’d missed out on a lot of things,that he could not live as “the victim” all his life and enjoy the success he wanted and have the THINGS he wanted. We talked about responsibility and how freedom and “big kid” stuff like electronics come with maturity and respect for oneself and others. Again, it wasn’t easy. There were a lot of days I thought he’d end up in jail sooner or later.
Today, I took him driving downtown for the first time. He has his learner's permit. He’s had a great school year. He’s matured. He’s straightened up his act. He’s been responsible and has shown genuine care for others, their belongings, and their feelings. He’s ready for big kid stuff because he’s grown up and has proven he is ready for them.
What we did with Youngest Son is not what a lot of therapeutic parents would tell most other parents to do. Some kids with more severe RAD issues may not respond to the way we handled things as Youngest Son did. However, if your child is older – a teenager who needs to grow up and take responsibility for her actions, perhaps, then my biggest suggestion would be to stop allowing her actions to be called “borrowing.” She is stealing her siblings’ belongings. Connect with her. Tell her you can see by her actions she is feeling like she needs a better connection to you, or her siblings, and that you want to be that connection for her – material items won’t fill that need.
Figure out a way to limit her exposure to her siblings belongs. Place limits on EVERYONE so that the entire amily understands what belongings are special things that should not be touched by anyone else. Be clear about your expectations. What can your family tolerate? What limits do you want? What limits can you live with? If she steals someone else’s mp3 player, for example, can you live with stripping her room of all electronics? Can you limit electronics (or whatever it is she keeps taking) to use only in common areas of the home, such as the family room? (We don’t allow computers in bedrooms, for example – not even the parents have a computer in the bedroom.)
Come up with some alternatives as a family. Are there some belongings the siblings CAN share? Are there some personal items that are okay to use, even if someone isn’t around to ask or grant permission for their use? If I want to spiral curl my hair and my sister owns a flat iron that she keeps in the bathroom that we share, is it okay for me to use that flat iron without asking her first?
Discuss consequences BEFORE the next temptation to steal. Logically, I would think that would include returning the item, giving some kind of service to the person who was wronged, and paying for any time or costs involved in making things right. Talk about how the other person feels and what they would like to see happen for restitution for taking the item, and most importantly, what is needed for restoration of the relationship. The problem should be owned by the person who broke the relationship to begin with, but the one who was hurt needs to be willing to reconcile for restoration of the relationship to begin. The person who is repentant can be completely remorseful, even do everything biblically required of them to restore the relationship, but if the other person is unwilling to move forward, to forgive and to love, then no one is going to heal.
Our pastor talked about justification and redemption this morning. He gave an example of the story of the prodigal son. When that young man returned home, his father did not say, “You wronged me. You did me harm.” He accepted the son’s apology and welcomed him home with open arms. He even threw a party.
Celebrate when she “gets it.” It’s a big deal. Teach the other kids to celebrate her successes, but not to minimize her actions or accept unacceptable behavior.
I hope that helps you. If you want to add more detail below about the ages of your children, please do. I hope it is okay with you that I copied your comment and pasted it above as a new blog post. I ask my readers to not include our family’s names in comments if they know who we are. I want to be as open as possible to help my readers as I help myself sort through things when I write. Thanks for understanding. Just call me “TMT.”