In response to a parent’s question about her 4-year-old’s habit of appropriating toys and clothing that don’t belong to her, Janet illuminates the underlying causes for some other troubling — but common — childhood behaviors. This mom writes that she has tried to explain to her daughter why the behavior is wrong and has been hoping that she will outgrow it, but it has only gotten worse. “I know it’s not about the things,” she writes. “She rarely cares about the thing once she’s brought it home.” This mom believes there must be underlying feelings motivating the behavior, but she doesn’t know what they are, so she’s hoping Janet can offer some insight.
Transcript of “Lying, Stealing, Hoarding”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
I want to start out right away by saying that I was very torn about the title of this podcast. I wanted it to be something parents would recognize that they might have issues with, but at the same time, I try to encourage parents not to think in terms of these kinds of words: lying, stealing, hoarding, judgmental words with a more adult context. Because what they can do is make it harder for us to understand what’s going on. They’re judgmental words that can trigger us, make us feel reactive, and create distance between us and our child when what we need is connection and a clearer understanding of what’s going on with them.
Having said that, I’m going to be mostly responding to a question I got on my Facebook page, but I’m going to be flushing this topic out a bit to include some other common issues as well. Here’s the note I received:
“Hi, Janet. Our family doctor recently recommended your podcast and books to me and I’m loving everything I’ve heard and read. One area I haven’t been able to find information on is stealing. We have a very clever four-year-old girl who will sneak home toys and clothing from anywhere she is to play, primarily from preschool and friends’ houses since that is where we spend most time outside of home. This has been going on for at least the past year and, since she is only four, people brush it off as cute or funny, but I’m getting more worried about it. I’ve tried to explain to her that she shouldn’t take things that are not hers, and asked how she would feel if someone was taking her things, but I’m running out of ideas on how to understand and help her put a stop to this behavior.
I’ve been hoping this will be something that she outgrows, but it actually seems to be getting worse as she’s getting older. For example, last time we went to a friend’s house, she took a toy home by sneaking it into my bags since she knows we usually notice it in her pockets. And at the same visit, she put on her own clothes over her friend’s clothes so we wouldn’t notice her wearing them home.
I know it’s not about the things. She rarely cares about the thing once she’s brought it home. I want to be able to trust her and recognize the underlying feeling causing this behavior, but I’m really struggling to determine what this feeling is. She’s also been displaying other controlling almost obsessive behaviors at times, and I’ve been able to recognize this escalates when she’s tired or overwhelmed. But this seems to be different since she’ll attempt to take things no matter how well-rested she is. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.”
Okay, so I really appreciate the direction this parent is going. She’s on the right track. She’s wanting to understand the underlying feelings causing this behavior. That’s the key for us to be able to respond in a way that’s actually helpful and changes the behavior, and that is true for the other topics I brought up in the title as well.
Almost all problematic behavior that children have, if we go at it trying to manage it or talk children out of it or it put reason to it, usually those will be dead ends for us and can sometimes risk creating more distance and actually more of the uncomfortable feelings that are causing the behavior. Because whenever children feel misunderstood and that we’re a little bit against them, or annoyed with them, or disappointed in them, it’s going to create more stress.
I’m going to admit something right now… that I’m a bit of a snoop. Since I received this question on Facebook, I was able to notice the little photo from the profile of this parent. All I had to see was that in that photo, there was a mother, a father, a young girl, and a baby that the mother was holding in her arms. That was actually my suspicion reading this that there was something going on in this child’s life that was stressful, and that perhaps this had been going on for the year that this parent says her daughter’s been displaying this behavior, which could include expecting another baby, which is also very stressful for children.
Then I thought it was interesting that the parent didn’t mention that in her note. This often happens, whether I’m doing in-home consultations, telephone consultations. Parents have reported to me that their child is having difficulties and it often turns out that there’s a baby, or parents are expecting a baby, or there’s some other kind of stress, but very often it’s this baby thing, interestingly. When the parents haven’t mentioned it, what that tells me is that perhaps they don’t realize how stressful that situation can be for a child.
Oftentimes children don’t show this in a direct way. Some children will say, “Put the baby back,” or “I don’t like the baby,” but other children will seem just fine. But the discomfort of making this huge transition, accepting another person in the family that is going to be just as loved, if not seemingly more in the beginning as the older child is, these feelings of discomfort can show up in a lot of different ways.
My guess is that that’s at least part of what’s going on here. It could be almost all of what’s going on.
When this mother says that her daughter displays other controlling, almost obsessive behaviors at times, these controlling behaviors can be a way our child gets kind of stuck holding onto their feelings. They don’t understand what’s upsetting them. They don’t feel safe around their own feelings. But if I can just hold onto these clothes, if I can just hold onto these toys, if I can control the baby, by taking everything away from them or maybe pushing them down when they’re trying to move around, sometimes it comes out that way, then I can feel a little better in the moment. But it’s not really comfortable to feel that way.
Another topic I brought up is “hoarding.” Again, I don’t recommend thinking in these terms, because that’s not really what’s going on here. What’s going on, and I see this in my classes often, is that they have this feeling in those moments that if they can pile every toy in the room on top of their parent’s lap, they can feel better. It’s a holding on feeling.
What children need to feel better is to be accepted for this behavior and then for us to limit certain behaviors. Like if a child is periodically taking toys out of another child’s hand in a class, and kind of stuck that way, then we will stop them. But if they’re just making a pile of toys we’re not going to protect those toys from other children, but we’re not going to judge that child. We’re going to notice.
What I love about working with young children is they’re very obvious. Maybe it’s not obvious what the behavior means, but they really do put it out there in some way. It can be a bit obtuse, but they put it out there for us.
If we can be open, if we can not turn against our child because, oh my gosh, they’re lying to me, or they’re stealing from other kids, or they’re hoarding all the toys, maybe we were judged for those kinds of behaviors or we worry that we see a little adult here. Oh my goodness, my child is going to go to jail if they do this kind behavior. My child won’t be liked if they do this kind of behavior. All of those things will block us to what we need to do, which is be interested. And again, I love that this mother is very interested. She’s concerned, but she’s trying to stay open.
Another aspect of this is that children will sometimes discover that there’s a behavior (and I think that’s what’s going on here with this child taking things from the environment and trying to take them home with her), this is something her parents, her loved ones are noticing. They’re seeing her here. They’re seeing that something’s not right. It can be a way that children actually communicate to us, when they keep doing it.
The first time they did it, they just felt like holding on, and holding this with me, and bringing this home with me, and holding onto this thing, holding onto my feelings. Then they notice that this gets a certain kind of attention from their parents. That can reinforce the behavior because my parent isn’t maybe quite understanding what’s going on, but at least they’re seeing that something’s not right. They’re seeing that there’s something off here. Everything’s not A-okay in my world. Children want to be seen that way, especially if it’s coming from a parent like this one who’s really not judging her, she’s staying on her side.
That’s why children can do things like make up stories. They see that this gets a certain detention from the parents and that can reinforce them continuing it. They don’t know themselves why they’re doing these things.
When this mother says she’s tried to explain to her that she shouldn’t take things that are not hers, that is trying to saddle a reasonable explanation on to something that’s not reasonable, something that’s emotionally based. And her daughter cannot understand yet herself why she has this impulse. That can make a child feel more uncomfortable, even if a parent is saying it kindly with curiosity. The child usually knows right away or even before they did it that this is not something they’re supposed to do. She may not have known the first time, but certainly as soon as her parents explained, she knew.
Then this mother says she asked how she would feel if someone was taking her things. Again, that’s going on a whole train of thought that’s very reasonable, trying to put herself in someone else’s shoes and empathizing with that point of view. She can’t go there. She wouldn’t be doing this if she could understand it also objectively and reasonably. It’s certainly not that this parent was mean or bad for doing this. She was just on a wrong track.
Then she says, “I’m running out of ideas on how to understand and help her put a stop to the behavior.” First, I would try to understand that this is coming from a feeling of wanting to hold on to some control around something. It’s also become a way for her parent to see her, see that I’m not A-okay, see that I’m struggling, see that I need your help putting a stop to it, is going to be about helping while making room for those feelings that are causing it.
The way that can look… let’s talk about the example that she gave. “Last time we went to a friend’s house, she took a toy home by sneaking it into my bag since she knows we usually notice it in her pockets. And at the same visit, she put on her own clothes over her friend’s clothes so we wouldn’t notice her wearing them home.”
When this parent discovers what’s happened, that’s when I would say, “Oh wow. You wanted to bring these home. You put it in your bag and you even put clothes over them. You were worried that we were going to see. Were you afraid we were going to get angry with you? We see that you’re having trouble with this, that you want to bring these things home, that you want to hold onto them. We can’t let you do that because those don’t belong to you, so we’re going to help you. When you feel like doing that, when you feel like holding onto something of your friend’s, we’d love for you to let us know so we can actually help you in the moment. It’s okay to feel that way, but we can’t let you do it. We’re here to help you stop.”
Then maybe she’ll be with you when you bring the things back. Then you say, “She really felt like holding onto this. She really liked the way this felt on her body,” or “She wanted to bring this home. Sorry, we weren’t there to help her stop, but we’re bringing it back because this doesn’t belong to us.”
What’s happening here is that we’re seeing her, we’re understanding that she’s acting out of a feeling that she has, we’re making room with our acceptance for that feeling, and/or limiting the behavior. We see that she’s having this impulse and we understand that she can’t control it on her own, at this point, and we’re letting her know that we are on her side to help her stop.
Cloaking all of this with that safety, that acceptance, that connection will help her to let go of this impulse. And then she will be able to control the urge, or she’ll have a better chance of it, at least. Maybe not when she’s overly tired or overwhelmed. We all have difficulty controlling our urges and our impulses at those times and our emotions.
The other thing I would do is let her know in calm moments that you’re having together that you understand that it’s really, really tough when there’s a new baby that comes in the house. It’s tough for the older child, and that you expect her to feel all kinds of feelings. One of them may be that she wants to hold onto things and take them home with her. You want to know about those feelings. You want her to share those.
That doesn’t mean that she’ll share in the moment, but it will help to ease her heart and help her to feel more regulated. Because there’s nothing harder than when we’re upset and we feel wrong for being upset. We feel there’s something wrong with us. None of us can control what we feel. We do learn how to control what we do with those feelings, how we act on it. But young children often can’t.
And we know even more that this is a feeling this girl has because as this mother says, “she rarely cares about the thing once she’s brought it home.” It’s not about things. It’s not about stuff. It’s this feeling of, I just want to hold onto this. I want to feel a sense of control.
When children are interacting and sometimes take toys out of each other’s hands, that’s definitely not stealing or anything close. There are so many things that can be going on there. Sometimes it’s as innocent as them wanting to engage with that child. Oh, hi. You’ve got something interesting there. Oh, I want to touch that. I want to hold that, too. It’s a way to engage. It’s an experiment, the way to understand their power with other children.
Again, when we think in those terms, “lying, stealing, hoarding,” and it raises our hackles as those terms naturally would, stealing, my child stealing, we’re going to mis-respond. We’re going to respond in a way that creates distance and less chance that we’re going to understand our child’s inner world.
Since I’ve also brought up lying in the title of this podcast, I have a post called When Children Lie, and there are a lot of reasons children do it. All very innocent, exploratory, or to be seen. Sometimes the lies are wishes that children have. I think our rule of thumb can be, there’s always a reason, and if we want to know more, stay open. Don’t judge. Don’t jump ahead to our child being an adult, displaying these behaviors.
I hope some of that helps.
I share much more about understanding and addressing our children’s behavior in my book No Bad Kids and also in Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Both books are available on audio at Audible.com, and you can get one for free by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com. And if you find this podcast helpful, you can help it to continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes.
Thank you again. We can do this.