Angry and aggressive emotions

What to do if your preschooler is expressing negative emotions by stealing

Q: My five-year-old son is continually taking and destroying things that don’t belong to him. He takes my makeup out of the bathroom, his sister’s iPod, whiteout from his teacher’s desk at school — anything he can get his hands on. This has been going on since he was about two.

A: At five, your son is beginning to understand it’s wrong to take things that belong to others. Wouldn’t it be great if he simply understood also that he hurts others by taking and destroying their things, and that he should stop? I suspect the situation is more complicated than this. Your son is likely unable to regulate and safely express his angry and aggressive emotions. He may also be craving attention that would allow him to feel connected to others, particularly the people he steals things from. He may be quite angry about the lack of attention, and this anger may be what’s driving him to destroy the items.

Why does he continue to take and destroy other people’s belongings? Your son probably gets a lot of attention for these behaviours — and he feels that even negative attention is preferable to none at all. I suggest that you set firm boundaries and have consistent consequences: When your son takes something that doesn’t belong to him, have him return it, or find a way to repay the owner if he has already destroyed the item. Meanwhile, try to spend more time giving your son positive attention, playing with him and trying to meet his needs for person-to-person connection.