My son has been struggling quite a bit, especially over the last couple of months, not to take things that don't belong to him.
It started out focused on food, and that still remains a big problem. The thing is, he won't take just ANY food...he takes food that is somebody else's. For instance, if you have a piece of pie leftover from dinner the other night, and everyone else ate theirs, including him, he'll eat your pie later. If someone buys a treat with their own money, he'll eat it. Now we've been having him replace the things he eats that are not his, but this seems to have very little to do with discouraging him from continuing the habit. He replaced two items on Friday and by Saturday noon, he had done it again.
So I talked with his therapist about this issue yesterday. As frustrating as it is, and as much as I felt like I didn't handle things appropriately for him (I grounded him on Saturday), I'm smart enough to know that in all likelihood there is something brewing under the surface when a behavior like this continues frequently AFTER we've tried various consequences.
His therapist pointed out that the food he is taking is forbidden to him, rather than the cabinets full of food options he has. This tendency comes from the mindset of not having enough. If you're worried about not having enough, then you take the most forbidden things first, because you know the "community" food will still be available. You have to ensure you have enough of the hot commodity. I know this is how he thinks, particularly about food--if he has something that he really likes, he wants a promise that he'll get to have it again in the future. He worries that he won't.
His therapist went on to compare this behavior to that of hoarding--the feeling of never having enough, or being in that one situation where a piece of two-inch twine is going to save you. Unless you're MacGyver, that's probably not going to happen--but how many people live their lives like that? My son has a tremendous issue with empty space and hoarding. The first time he went to the hospital, I decided to clean his room. I usually stay out of my kids' rooms--it's their own space--but since he was gone I thought I would make it nice for him. Instead it was I who got the shock; every little pocket of empty space in the room, whether it was around his mattress or under his bed or in his desk, was packed with something. Marbles, balls, rubber bands, scrap paper, paper clips--anything. It was then that I realized his problems extended even deeper than I knew.
When a child grows up in an early environment of neglect, they develop instincts to survive that are beyond what most people can imagine. This child learned how to make his own meals by age three. He knocked on doors of strangers to get food. He collected whatever he could--and still does--because you never know when you're going to need it. You never know when you'll be out there with nothing again.
The therapist offered me some good suggestions which I plan to use to help this child refocus his need to hoard in a more positive fashion. I hope it works.