Is My Niece a Kleptomaniac?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From the Philippines: My niece is 12 years old. She grew up with me and my mom since her parents move in another city. They left her with us because my sister (her mom) is pregnant with their second child. She grew up like a normal child, active, curious, etc. I just noticed that she has difficulty with reading and writing. She writes b as d..and writes numbers 4 and 7 inversely also the letters p.

But in all, she’s a good and charming kid. We see to it that we teach her well so she’ll grow up to be a good woman. We nourished her with our care and love but despite that, she always miss her own family. We do want to send her to be with her mom but we can’t because after their third child, their marriage were on rocks and eventually split up. When her mom returns with the third child from his first husband and a little boy from his live-in partner, there we notice sudden changes.

My niece was 7 years old then, when the first incident happened. When we found out that my niece got the money that my mom lost (she was sure the money is inside her wallet because that’s the only money she has), she just said that she saw it on the floor and keep it for safety. My mom talked to her, and points out that what she did was wrong. When she’s 8, she lived with her mom already when her mom returns with the third child from his first husband and a little boy from his live-in partner, there we notice sudden changes.

She’s stubborn and won’t listen anymore. She’s jealous with her siblings and is frequently bullying them. She brags about her little achievements and even exaggerates it. Then, she frequently throw temper tantrums though she never tell us whats wrong. Then later on, she opened up that she feels that her mother doesn’t love her. Honestly, I could tell that her mom is not really fond of her. Even though when they are together, my sister would be extra caring and loving with the other two kids than her. When my niece decided that she will live with us again, my sister didn’t even ask why and let her move with us. Now, my niece’s attitude became worse and so is the stealing. i talked my sister about this and she already talked with my niece. I thought they are already okay, but there’s no changes. My niece is now 12 y.o. and I hope, we can change her. i hope you can help.

A: Thank you for writing. As you guess, the most important problem is not the stealing. The most important problem is that this child feels unloved by her own mother. From your niece’s point of view, her mother has abandoned her several times and replaced her with other children. Of course she is jealous of her siblings! Her mother loves them and doesn’t love her.

Your niece is not a kleptomaniac. She is a child who is deeply hurt. Like many children in her situation, she can’t talk it out so she acts it out. It may be that she feels her mother has been stolen away from her so now she is stealing from other people. On top of that, this little girl may feel defective because she has a learning disability that makes it hard for her to do well in school. Her conclusion may be that she in unlovable. Please understand that this isn’t a conscious decision on her part. Kids who can’t express their pain often act it out.

Your sister doesn’t have positive feelings for her daughter for reasons we don’t understand. It’s unlikely that she will change so it is up to you and your mother to help this little girl feel lovable and capable.

You and your mother have provided a home, support for her school difficulties and love. None the less, she may believe that her time with you is limited. Perhaps it’s time for you and your mom to talk with her about how much she means to you and to reassure her that she has a permanent home with you. Catch her being good and right as much as you can. She needs the emphasis to be on what is right about her, not what is wrong. Give her lots of positive comments and hugs whenever she is doing the right thing. My guess is she is doing fine many times in a day and deserves many hugs. Let her know she can come to you with her troubles and that you will do your best to comfort her, even though you may not be able to fix it.

The stealing can’t be ignored but it needs to be addressed from a position of sympathy, not anger. Let her know that you understand that she hurts but that the solution is not to hurt the people who love her. Ask her if she can talk about her feelings with you. Reassure her that you aren’t going to abandon her as her mother did, even if she makes some mistakes. People who love each other forgive each other and figure out how to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again. Then talk to her about what she needs so she doesn’t have to steal.

This is a very important time in your niece’s development. Separating from the adults is a normal part of becoming an adolescent. But she doesn’t have the inner security to do that well. Please use the next year or two to put extra effort into helping her feel that she is worthwhile and worth love so she doesn’t go looking for it in the wrong places.

You’ve already done a great deal. Your niece is lucky indeed to have you and your mother. I hope you can continue to provide the love and guidance she needs.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Apr 2014

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2014). Is My Niece a Kleptomaniac?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2014/04/18/is-my-niece-a-kleptomaniac/

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