Behaviour & Emotions

How to talk about: Stealing and lying

How to talk about stealing and lying

Yikes, stealing and lying – I can feel the parental tension rising already! These are not the sort of issues any parent wants to deal with, let alone talk about. But as uncomfortable as it is to think about our sweet offspring helping themselves to things that don’t belong to them, and then making up tall tales to cover their tracks, these behaviours aren’t uncommon. No, you certainly haven’t failed as a parent! Talking about what’s really going on below the surface can help make everyone feel better. (And behave better! Phew.)

Where to start?

When a child has developed a habit of stealing and/or lying, a parent understandably wants to nip this behaviour in the bud, and quickly. The goal that immediately comes to mind is to get your child to stop stealing and to stop lying. Fair enough. These are good goals to have, but this sort of tricky behaviour might not be changed with a ‘quick fix’. Rather, change might be gradual. The goals, and thus the conversation with our kids, could be better rephrased around:

  • Learning to deal with temptation (a wider goal)

  • Feeling comfortable to be honest with you (a relationship goal)

  • Finding strategies for letting our kids experience the consequences of their actions

A chat about temptation is useful to have at any time, but especially when anyone (young or old!) is struggling with keeping things honest. Maybe it’s a casual chat around the meal table with the whole whānau, where you discuss different kinds of everyday temptation. Throw out some ‘what if…’ scenarios. The ‘what would you do if..?’ tool offer kids the safety of a hypothetical situation to problem-solve and strategise around how they would deal with a tempting or tricky moment in real life.

  • What would you do if you found an unopened chocolate bar in the pantry?

  • What would you do if your friends were skipping school and asked you to join them?

  • What about if you felt tempted to lie to get out of trouble with a teacher?

  • What would you do if all the ‘cool kids’ were bullying someone, and you wanted to fit in?

  • What would you do if you found money lying around?

  • What if you wanted to sneak your phone into bedroom at night?

Add some stories from your own experiences (your failures as well as successes!), and keep the conversation relatable and non-judgemental, as opposed to lecture-like.

A key life-skill to be picked up from this conversation is that temptation can be resisted – even though we might feel a strong urge to do or say something, it doesn’t mean we have to act on that feeling.

Big behaviours and the big feelings underneath

If your child is lying or stealing (or both), emotion coaching is a helpful tool to support conversations about the underlying feelings your child may be experiencing. Let’s apply the emotion coaching tool to a hypothetical child who has stolen your hypothetical grocery money, and you suspect they’re trying to buy themselves a hypothetical secret phone.

The first step of emotion coaching is noticing and observing your child’s emotions. No talking at this point, we’re simply curious. Does our hypothetical child feel left out because other kids have phones? Does he experience craving to buy nice things? Does he experience temptation in a strong way?

As parents, we are aiming to accept ALL our child’s emotions. Some we will like, some we will not. Some will make us feel compassion for our child, others could make us pretty cross. Some will even trigger us and make us concerned that we are raising a child who will not do well in life. However, what we need to understand is that emotions are not behaviour. All emotions are acceptable, all emotions are welcome. All behaviours, on the other hand, are not acceptable. Behaviours need limits.

All emotions are acceptable, all emotions are welcome. All behaviours, on the other hand, are not acceptable.

Our hypothetical child might have some strong feelings of jealousy or FOMO (fear of missing out) sitting below the surface a lot of the time, driving their behaviour of stealing. If we dismiss these emotions, or disapprove of them (which our anxiety about how he is ‘turning out’ might cause us to do!), it does not help him to process his feelings. He may pick up that these emotions are unacceptable so he must not talk about them, but this does not help him to express them in healthy ways.

A chance to connect

The second step of emotion coaching is truly seeing these emotions as an opportunity to connect with your child. We don't see the emotions as something that must be ‘quickly gotten rid of’. Instead, because we’re not scared of emotions, we can draw near and be open to talking with our child about their feelings.

Instead, because we’re not scared of emotions, we can draw near and be open to talking with our child about their feelings.

Third step – have a go at naming the emotion for your child. At a time when things are calm (not heated!), ask your child if you can talk to them. Be affectionate and close, and let your tone of voice convey real care and concern.

“I wonder if you are feeling jealous of Jimmy’s family being richer than us? It can be hard to see your friends having more buying power than you do.”

It is a tentative suggestion. We are normalising the emotion and we are trying not to shame him. We all know it can be hard when other people afford nice things so easily.

He will correct you if you are way off beam. “No! I don’t feel jealous. I just want to be able to buy lots of lollies at the tuckshop because then I can share them with my soccer mates.”

Be affectionate and close, and let your tone of voice convey real care and concern.

Fourth step – empathise. This step is to connect with the emotion your child is feeling, depending on the clues they have given you:

“So what I am hearing you say is that you are feeling really jealous of Eric’s Xbox and his phone and you wish you had these things too. The Xbox has such cool games, and you feel left out when the other kids discuss this at lunch time.”


“So what I am hearing you say is that you want to be able to buy treats for your mates, because you feel like it is your turn! Other people are always buying things from the tuck shop for you… so you feel like you need to be able to do this back?”

Again, this is not a lecture about values or life lessons. At this point we are simply interested in his emotional world. We might go back and forth between naming the emotion and empathising, several times. This is good. He may have several emotions and circumstances that he is explaining to you and you are simply showing that you find his emotions understandable.

Remember, you don’t have to agree with your child’s emotions or perspective, you are simply connecting with your child, and they will feel deeply connected to you while you do this.

How do we fix this?

Lastly, we arrive at problem-solving together. We don’t need to tell our child what to do, they can have a go at figuring it out themselves. But we can set limits at this point.

Problem solving: “So my darling, what are we going to do? I hear you that you really feel the need to buy stuff from the tuckshop for your mates sometimes, and you are embarrassed if you can’t. To us, it is really important that you do not take money that is not yours. What could be a way that we can both get our needs met?”

This honours the child's need, as well as your own need. It is collaborative, and not shaming. It shows willingness to listen to what your child needs. Which highlights the fact that in any talks with our kids – and especially in conversations around tough topics like lying or stealing – the most important thing we parents can do is listen.


Kristin Ward

Kristin Ward manages the Family Coaching team and enjoys working with tricky dynamics in families. She loves supporting parents to see how they can be on the same team as their kids, no matter what challenging behaviour they are facing. A mum-of-three, Kristin is passionate about seeing whānau thrive and strongly believes there is lots parents can do to build close and warm relationships with their children.

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