Why Do People with FASD (Especially Children and Teens) Steal, Take, or “Borrow” Things Without Permission?

Ownership is an abstract concept to children, and the brain damage of FASD can affect the ability to understand abstract concepts for their entire life.

A neuropsychologist told me that individuals who have FASD understand the concept of ownership at the level of an 18-month-old to 2-year-old:

“I see it, I want it, it is mine.”

All of my kids with FASD could not grasp ownership, and we worked really, really hard and consistently on it from day one — long before I knew about FASD or that they are affected by it. They would take things that belonged to others; and when asked “Why?” they would always respond with “Because I wanted it”. When I pointed out that it belonged to someone else, they would look at me with a totally confused look on their faces.

My approach was to have them do some really undesirable chore to earn the money to replace what they had taken, write a note of apology, and personally face the person they had stolen from. Again, this was all before I knew about FASD. I was floored then, when my son, 10 years old at the time (he was diagnosed with FASD at age 12), wrote a note that said, “I am really sorry I stole your toy, I thought it would be okay as long as I didn’t get caught”.

I started making phone calls to professionals, asking how to teach my son not to steal when he thought this way. I was informed that I could not teach him not to steal. They all informed me that the only way to keep him out of jail was with 24/7 supervision. 
— Comment in a discussion of Stealing on FASD discussion list, 2013

In particular, children and teens with FASD often have trouble understanding what “ownership” means. 

At the same time, their own feelings are very powerful and concrete and immediate to them. When the young person with FASD takes something that doesn’t belong to them, and then avoids being honest about it, it could be due to any or all of the following:

  • Brain damage makes it difficult for persons with FASD to understand the concept of personal ownership of property that is a prerequisite for understanding why stealing is wrong. If a person does not appreciate what personal ownership means, he or she cannot understand that taking another’s possessions is stealing. Often it takes many years of direct instruction for students to understand the abstract concept of rightful ownership.
  • Like young children, children and adolescents with FASD may believe that if a person is holding an object, that object belongs to that individual. However, it may be difficult for them to see that an object left on a table has a particular owner. They often act impulsively and take things they need or want.
  • Individuals affected by FASD tend to live in the present moment, and if they something they want and it’s available (i.e., no one else is using it) they take it. They don’t think about what the true owner will think, or how they will react, when they discover that their possession is missing or when they discover that the person (usually a family member) with FASD has taken it.
  • Because of problems with short-term memory, they might not remember having taking it and deny it when confronted about it.
  • They might have thought that it was theirs or that someone had “given” it to them. For example, a teen with FASD asks a friend to listen to their MP3 player. The friend says “Yes”, but assumes that they are just loaning it and not giving it to the friend with FASD. The teen with FASD doesn’t wasn’t to return the music player and believes that it was a gift.
  • They might lie and deny stealing because they are afraid of being in trouble.
  • Because each day is new and different to someone with FASD, the child or teen may not remember that taking someone else’s things was wrong.

What Can Parents, Teachers or Other Adults Do to Help People with an FASD to Avoid Taking Someone Else’s Things Without Permission?

People in the life of a person with FASD need to be very clear when they lend him or her things. They must make clear that the person with FASD can use the item for a specific purpose, event, or time period, and then give it back. They must spell it out, possible several times, to make sure that the person with FASD understands. For example, the person’s sibling might say, “Yes, you can borrow my sweater for the dance. But, I’ll need you to give it back to me tomorrow. This is not a gift to keep.”

Adults and even other young people must remember that the person with FASD may not be clear on the concept of ownership. They must describe things using “ownership” terms, such as “your jacket”, “my money”, “Jane’s doll”, etc.

My kids are so great at apologizing “after the fact”, but they will continue to do the same things over and over again. There is no cause and effect thinking (in FASD, because this requires) a good working memory, with historical memory and future problem solving to understand consequences.

Locks at home, items locked in the glove compartment of the car, and carrying valuables around with me stopped any stealing.

My kids were so good (at stealing) that they actually climbed on the roof, went in through screened windows and then back the same way …. They always left the screen out if the window though, so they always got caught. That didn’t stop them from doing it over and over again. The windows are now locked.      
— Comment in a discussion of Stealing on FASD discussion list, 2012

Tips to Prevent Stealing and to Teach about Ownership

  1. Most children will take something that is not theirs at least once while they are young. It is up to the parent or caregiver to teach a child about ownership and right from wrong. Be patient. Ownership is a hard thing to learn from children and teens with FASD.
  2. If your child takes something that is not theirs, ask her how she would feel if her favorite toy or shoes were stolen. Help them to understand that no one likes to have their things stolen.
  3. Establish and implement appropriate consequences for taking others’ items.
  4. If your child takes something which doesn’t belong to her, make sure she returns it with an apology. Practice how she will say sorry. Go with her for support.
  5. For teenagers, use restitution or restitution plus community service as a consequence for stealing.
  6. Label the things your child owns with a sticker, or by color-coding or otherwise labeling them. For example, everything with blue stickers are his. If they don’t have his sticker on them, he should not take or use them. This is a strategy that can be applied to all children in the family.
  7. If your child takes something that is not theirs, do not get caught up in an argument. Simply say, “This … belongs to …” Have them return the item. Stealing needs to be dealt with quickly, firmly and with appropriate consequences.
  8. Valuables should not be left around where a child with FASD may come across them. Lock up things like coin or stamp collections, medication, alcoholic beverages, cameras, money and jewelry.
  9. Stores and malls are not good places for children and teens to “hang out”. A good rule is that a parent must always go with the child or teen to the store or mall. Shoplifting can be a big problem with children and teens with FASD.
  10. Supervise, supervise, supervise. Children and teens with FASD need supervision at home, at school, during free time, and all the time.
group of teens
Some parents do not want their kids to be labeled. It is better to be labeled as having FASD, which may help the child to get services, than it is to be labeled as a troublemaker, dropout, sex offender, criminal, or to be dead. Find services for your FASD-affected child, and advocate for him or her. This will not only help them but it will make your life better also.