By Barb Clark, NACAC’s parent support and training specialist
Like many toddlers, my daughter first began taking things from the church nursery when she was two. Unfortunately, she didn’t stop as she got older. For neurotypical children around age five or so, stealing can create a teachable moment where a parent gives a consequence, teaches ownership, and the child learns not to steal. When we are parenting children with a history of trauma or—even more commonly—those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), this can play out very differently for a variety of reasons. In these cases, stealing is often something that the child does not easily grow out of or learn not to do.
When someone consistently steals, it is generally an impulse control issue. Impulse control is one of the executive functions that work from the prefrontal cortex of our brain (the “thinking” or reasoning area). The majority of individuals who were prenatally exposed to alcohol struggle with executive function deficits. As do some children who experienced early and ongoing trauma. This in-utero trauma ultimately leads to an organic brain injury. These executive function deficits may look like behavioral issues and willful disobedience, but more often, they are a symptom of their brain injury. It is important that parents and professionals who are supporting these children be able to reframe their approach and respond through a brain-injury lens.
FASD is a neuro-behavioral disorder, and it often results in behavioral challenges. The challenges for children with FASD (and some with trauma histories) are often similar to those of people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and those affected by dementia. These behaviors—such as stealing, swearing, food hoarding, and confabulation (which most often looks like lying)—are often seen in memory care units.
How do we respond when our grandparent in memory care has taken something from another resident? Do we give them a consequence? Do we take away their TV time? Keep them out of activities for a week? We certainly shouldn’t! We acknowledge the brain-based aspect of the behavior, and try to redirect or simply move past the behavior. It is easier for us to understand that these behaviors are a manifestation of their disorder, since we knew Grandpa before his brain was compromised by Alzheimer’s. We understand that he is not a thief at heart, but struggling with a brain that he cannot control. Unfortunately, we don’t have the privilege of that perspective with our kids. There was not a time to know them before the brain injury caused the behavioral challenges.
Once we started to understand the neurological aspect of our daughter’s stealing (and other behaviors as well), we started to change our approach. We explained to our daughter that we did not want her to steal, and that we would have conversations about it every time it happened, but that we would not give her a consequence any longer. Most children who have FASD or a trauma history struggle with significant anxiety. When they are in trouble, whether real or perceived, their anxiety is generally off the charts. As parents, we are often wanting to have a deep conversation with our children in that moment when we have caught them stealing, not recognizing the anxiety fog they are currently in.
When they are dealing with anxiety, it is often like their brain is on fire. When their brain is on fire, they usually cannot remember the details of the situation we are asking them about. This is why they often end up confabulating a story in that moment of interrogation. Confabulation is when someone fills in the gaps in their memory and starts believing their story as they say it. After we stopped giving our daughter a consequence every time she stole, we were able in each moment to have a fairly in-depth discussion (targeted at her cognitive ability) about all of the details of the “theft.” Where was the item, what did she feel when she first saw it, what did she feel right after she took it, and how does she feel right now? We would ask what she should have done instead of taking the item, and helped her problem solve why she didn’t make that better choice.
After about 18 months of this approach, when she was around 11, she stopped stealing. It could be that she outgrew it, but I think it was more that she was able to finally learn some of the strategies we had been trying to teach her in therapy, at school, and at home for years. Because we were able to keep her anxiety down, which in turn allowed her brain to be calm, she could absorb the strategies and lessons we were trying to teach her. Before changing our approach, she was in a constant state of fear whenever she was caught doing something, and her anxiety increased as she wondered what she was about to lose (her iPad, her TV time, cell phone, a preferred activity, etc.).
As children get older, the consequences for stealing become much more serious. Teenagers can sometimes find themselves facing legal issues due to shoplifting or stealing from their parents, friends, or neighbors. As a parent, the frustration and fear that this behavior creates can be overwhelming and even infuriating. We often parent our children out of that place of fear and anger. When that happens, we usually overreact to the situation. Now everyone in the household is filled with the same anxiety and it is difficult to bring the temperature of the room down enough to have a meaningful conversation with the child. We find ourselves saying things like, “If I did that when I was a kid, I know what my parents would do…and it wouldn’t have been a slap on the wrist!”
Parents, caregivers, teachers, and other providers can have a hard time shaking off the feelings that behaviors like this need to be stopped with an iron fist. After all, don’t we get advice from friends, family, and complete strangers about how we could be better, more effective parents? And don’t we feel like failures when our kids are caught doing things that embarrass us? While it is hard to shift our thinking to one of understanding the brain differences created by FASD or trauma, it can be done! Half of the battle is to change our thinking so that we can make a safe space for our kids to rely on us to help them avoid behaviors like stealing until their brains mature enough to be able to handle the impulse on their own.
Take the case below of my friend Julie and her son:
My son, who has FAS, stole a pair of track shoes in middle school. I hadn’t realized he had been wearing someone else’s shoes until I attended a track meet that I will never forget. My son was fast. I couldn’t wait until his first event, the hurdles, began. I so wanted him to do well and really wanted to see him succeed at something since so many other things were so difficult for him in life. As the race began, I thought I was watching Ronald McDonald running the hurdles. The shoes he had on were clearly many sizes too big for him. I felt embarrassment (what if the other parents thought I bought the shoes ridiculously big!?), anger (where did he get those shoes?!) and sadness (I so wanted him to do well in the race).
My son had taken the shoes from an older student who had left them in the locker room. He liked them and didn’t think twice about taking them especially since someone left them right there. He didn’t think about the person he was stealing from. Frankly, he wasn’t doing a whole lot of thinking at the moment. He was excited that he found some great shoes and couldn’t wait to wear them at his next meet. Neurotypical people would have had more of a chance to reason this situation out. Some may still have taken the shoes but then would have had lots of guilt or fear of being caught.
By the time I asked him where he got the shoes, he had no answer. (The adrenaline of getting these new shoes clouded his memory even more than usual and created gaps in his memory.) My first reaction was anger. I just wanted him to tell me where he got the shoes. Asking questions in anger spells disaster when we really want to get answers. After getting nowhere, I decided to wait until we could both calmly talk this whole thing out. When we were able to really talk over what had happened, he could be honest with me. I could see that he felt frustrated, embarrassed, and stupid. He really didn’t know why he did what he did and he didn’t know why he couldn’t give me answers to my questions. We both learned so much in this encounter, and I learned that sometimes there are no answers to my questions.
How do I stop my child from stealing? In my son’s situation, the answer was time and finding teachable moments. In time, his brain seemed to mature enough to be able to stop himself from stealing. Not all brains will mature in that way, but there is hope! He didn’t need a lecture. He knew stealing was wrong. We talked about how it feels when you are stolen from, what it means to be trustworthy, and the consequences of stealing. But we never had these conversations in a heated situation. If we had, he would most likely have become defensive and shut down. As parents, we began to focus on connection with him and the time and effort paid off.
Like Julie did, we adults—whether parents, caregivers, or professionals—need to rethink the messages we give our children with neuro-behavioral issues like FASD. After years of us being frustrated, giving consequences non-stop, attending therapy after therapy after therapy, our kids start to feel broken, like they need to be fixed. This is not to say that we should not partner with them to teach them how to better overcome their symptoms, but while doing so, it is important that we help them understand their brain differences. It’s critical to let them know that they are not bad people, but rather that their brain injury often makes it hard for them to make the right choice. This is the path to positive self-identity.
Many parents worry that their children will then use their FASD or trauma history as an excuse for bad choices. I have rarely seen this happen. More often it gives them an explanation for the behavior/symptom and allows them to work with us on solutions. If we are able to start changing our approach, and thus are able to keep their anxiety lowered, we are much more likely to be successful in teaching them the lessons we desperately need them to learn.