While growing up, nearly all children are tempted to acquire objects which do not belong to them. Till a certain age when children have not developed a concept of personal boundaries or moral values, they may filch the things that they desire. Once the personal boundaries and a sense of moral values are in place, the stealing stops. However, there are some children who develop a psychological disorder called Kleptomania.
Kleptomania refers to a compulsive stealing behaviour, belonging to the family of impulse-control disorders. Children with kleptomania experience strong impulses to steal objects. The impulse to steal is extremely strong and the child cannot resist it no matter how hard he or she tries. There is a loss of control and some children experience it as an automatic act.
Before the act of stealing an extreme tension builds up in the mind and the body and when the act is carried out the child usually experiences pleasure and relief. The child usually carries out the stealing act alone and it is a carefully guarded secret. Children suffering from kleptomania develop uncomfortable feelings of shame, guilt and fear. They live in a dread of being caught and feel ashamed and guilty that they are indulging in a ‘bad activity.’
The causes of kleptomania have not been fully understood an interaction of psychological, environmental and biological factors can lead to the condition.
Inside the brain of a kleptomaniac: A decrease in the availability of neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain has been associated with a tendency toward risk taking behaviours. Serotonin regulates emotions and mood of a person. There may also be an increase in the level of dopamine which produces feelings of pleasure and reinforces the stealing.
Stolen object as a symbol for something else: In many cases of kleptomania, although the stolen object initially seems very bizarre in course of psychological treatment it is known that the object stands as a symbol for something else. Usually, a child has some deep wishes which he or she is scared to acknowledge and suppresses. The stolen object fulfils these wishes in a symbolic and complicated manner.
Coping with deprivation or loss: Children suffering from kleptomania have often experienced a real or imagined deprivation or loss and both the act of stealing and stolen object help them deny and cope with this painful sense. The stolen object has a deep symbolic significance in relation to the trauma.
In the treatment of kleptomania, both parents and psychologist need to collaborate.
Parents who discover that their children are kleptomaniac experience shock, rage and grief. During this time it is important to keep in mind that their child is not a criminal but is suffering from a disorder. Blaming or ridiculing the child is simply going to worsen the problem. While they need to set limits for the child, the perspective should centre on trying to understand what makes the child steal? What symbolic value the stolen object may have for the child? What psychological functions are the act of stealing performing for the child? An engagement with these questions will elucidate the complexities of seemingly bizarre behaviour and the ways to cope with it.
Behavioural treatments focusing on specific symptom have been found to be effective in the treatment of kleptomania in children. The techniques commonly used are exposure and response prevention (ERP) and covert sensitization.
Psychoanalytical treatment focusing on underlying causes of kleptomania leads to a reduction in symptoms besides improving the self-concept, relationship patterns and coping skills of the child.
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