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Teen Vogue Contacted "THEFT TALK" and had a few questions about girls and shoplifting. Following are the answers we provided to those questions. Their story was published in their September 2009 Magazine - "Sticky Fingers" pages 206 - 209.

What about girls who have trouble stopping? Or feel peer pressured to keep doing it? Any other practical advice?

In the mind of the shoplifter, stealing seems so easy. You may have done it once or twice and gotten away with it. This may go without saying, but clearly the more times someone has shoplifted, the more at risk they are to do it again. Most people "figure it out" pretty quickly and stop on their own. If a teen girl has stolen several times and, whether caught or not, there are three primary forces at work which make it difficult to stop; greed, excitement and habit. If you are having trouble stopping, you would do well to deal with all three of these forces.

First, greed; the free item. Greed draws us to getting and taking free stuff. It helps if you look at the "free item" and determine if it was really "free." Actually, there are many prices to pay when you have a stolen item. Don't take my word for it, challenge me! Clearly, the fact that you have stolen is something you will know and remember for the rest of your life. Do you really want to carry that kind of baggage around? Hopefully, after the excitement wears off and you aren't trying to laugh about having stolen anymore, you will realize there is a very personal price to pay in gilt, remorse, self esteem, pride and character. If you are religious, then it would probably be smart to recognize that there are only ten big rules for you to follow and the 8 th one is all about stealing. If you are caught stealing, the added "price" of this free item is the lost of trust from the people you love and care about. Even if your friends laugh with you about it, what are they really thinking? Do they "really" think it's cool? You should realize that there are many juveniles and adults who had to take their time to go to court, do community service work, pay penalties and who are serving time in detention or jail for having stolen. Add up all of the time it takes from you and you will quickly see that the item wasn't really "free". Maybe the biggest price to pay comes from how it affects your life. Let's face it, we all want to be happy and to live a positive upbeat life. Shoplifting is a negative event. Shoplifting results in negative self talk, a negative self image and negative social, family and legal interactions. We all want, and love to get, stuff free. The price we pay for this kind of greed is, indeed, very high. Just think about it.

Second, the excitement - breaking the rules, doing that which is taboo. Okay, life gets boring now and then. Teens in particular seek out fun, excitement and adventure. Stealing is one way to bring some form of excitement into your life. But, if you are seriously wanting to stop stealing then it is incredibly easy to find other ways to replace stealing with more positive and just as exciting alternatives. Tried rock climbing lately? Ever tried snowboarding? Want to get you heart pumping? Try sports! There is no question in my mind that we are all gifted at something. The trick is to search until you find it. Music? Video games? After school activities, chess, bicycling, become a big sister to someone who needs you. Finding excitement is only limited by your imagination. Heck, you can find some pretty exciting books that can overcome any sense of bordom!

Thirdly stealing can become a habit; not just a stealing habit but also a thinking habit. I have worked with thousands of shoplifters and the one thing I know for sure is that those who can say they have stolen many times in their past, they will always say that "thinking about stealing" has become a part of their day. What I have learned is that allowing yourself to think about stealing (whether you are in a place you could steal or not) is poisonous. I tell the teens I work with that if they are willing to allow themselves to think about stealing something, they are "dancing with the devil." My entire staff are instructed to give only one piece of advice to people who steal; and here it is, "If . . . you want to STOP stealing . then you MUST . STOP allowing yourself to think about it.

For most of us, having the though of stealing something cross our mind would be horrifying and create a huge negative emotional reaction. For the person who has stolen a few times they become numb to how wrong that kind of thinking is. They entertain the thought of stealing. If you are serious about wanting to stop stealing, then you need to regain that huge negative emotional reaction to the thought of it. Yes, it is true that many (if not most) people have thought about stealing. But, the point is not that the thought crossed their mind; the point is all about how we respond to those thoughts. There is a clear difference between a shoplifter and someone who doesn't steal. The person who has stolen several times has forgotten how abnormal that kind of thinking is. The shoplifter allows herself to think about stealing - to have the thought of stealing cross her mind. The person who doesn't steal quickly and naturally self punishes those thoughts. Yes, the stealing behavior is what was wrong, but thinking about stealing is what needs to change if you really want to stop.

Here are some examples of the kind of "thinking about stealing" that is very dangerous:

  • Debbi is in a dressing room trying on two bathing suits. She thinks, "Nobody saw me come in with two different swim suits. I could put one on and wear it out. No one would know." She proceeds to try the suits on, buying one and returning the other to the rack.
  • Judy works for a fast food hamburger chain. She can't figure out how anyone would know if she slipped a dollar or two from the cash register into her pocket. She goes about her business never taking the money, though tempted.
  • Doug works graveyard shift in the back room at a grocery store. He's not old enough to buy beer but thinks about planting a case or two outside the back door and having a friend come by and pick it up. He doesn't take the risk.
  • Marcia and Jessica have lunch at a restaurant. Jessica thinks about asking Marcia if she wants to leave without paying the bill. Jessica never tells Marcia what she is thinking. The girls pay the bill and leave.
  • Rick is walking to school. On his way he sees a bicycle lying in a front yard. He thinks about jumping on the bike, riding it to school and abandoning it there. He walks on.
  • Jennifer is shopping and finds a pair of pants she wants. She knows she can't afford them. She looks to see if it has a security tag, she scans the room to see if she is being watched. She looks for cameras. She thinks she could get away with it, but knows she'd never do anything like that

The first trick to stopping this kind of thinking is for the person who steals to know and understand how dangerous it is. If she realizes how poisonous this kind of thinking is, then it will naturally become a yukky thought that she doesn't want to continue. The good news is that we humans don't spend much time thinking about things we don't like thinking about.

Here are a few other tricks to help people stop thinking about stealing:

Rubber Band: Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap the rubber band lightly every time the thought of stealing crosses your mind. Our purpose behind this suggestion is not to induce pain or to punish; it is to increase awareness of how often this thinking occurs. Somehow the snapping the rubber band helps the person "log in" how often this type of thought crosses their mind.

Pocket Tablet: Secondly, if a person is really serious about exorcising this kind of thinking we encourage carrying a pocket tablet. Each time the thought of stealing occurs the person is to: 1) hopefully naturally self punish the though, 2) snap the rubber band (almost in anger at oneself), 3) pull out the pocket tablet and a pen, and put a mark on the tablet. Tallying the marks should be done at the end of each day and a weekly total should also be collected.

Thought Stopping: Another method is done by doing what is called Thought Stopping. Thought Stopping is a form of deliberate self-punishing. This method is strongly encouraged for people who indicate they want to stop thinking about stealing but have not yet developed a real and natural negative reaction to the thought of stealing. The process of Thought Stopping involves yelling as loud as possible, not out loud but in your head, the word, "STOP!" "Quietly" yelling the word "STOP!" can be repeated several times and should always be done with vigor. It is also okay to stretch out the word "S -T-O-P !" to prolong and emphasize the enthusiasm. The effect of Thought Stopping is not only to have the person deliberately self punish the thought of stealing but also as a distraction, much like that with the rubber band and tablet method.

Stop Signing: A fourth technique is similar to Thought Stopping but instead of hearing the word "S-T-O-P" the client visualizes a big, bright red Stop Sign with big white letters saying "S T O P". The moment the thought of stealing occurs place a big imaginary stop sign in your minds eye. It is best if a traffic stop sign is used. It is okay to close your eyes. It is very important that the person actually see a stop sign. Stop Signing works well all by itself but many people report it is even better if used with Thought Stopping.

Be musical: Clearly many teenagers are into music. Music is not only entertaining but it is also a great distraction. Have a song in mind and if the thought of stealing crosses your mind hear the music playing. Try to play the whole song through.

Attending to the Moment: If you should ever catch yourself thinking about stealing try stopping whatever you are doing and notice how your body is functioning. Attend to whether your heartbeat is accelerated. Can you hear it? Is your breathing deeper or faster? Try to notice if your skin gets clammy, tingly or covered with goose bumps. Do your muscles tense up? Do you develop a nervous shake? Also attend to your mental state and assess if your mind is racing or if you are excited. This method not only distracts you but also provides for a short time-out.

Fine yourself: Write a rule that you will fine yourself a dollar (or whatever) each time you catch yourself thinking about stealing. The fine should be immediate. You could either give the dollar away or spent it on someone else. You could also put it in a jar an when the total is big enough, go buy yourself something special.

Hold yourself accountable: Some people report that they don't allow themselves to go to a store for a week if they catch themselves thinking about stealing. Other people report forcing themselves to tell a friend each time they think about stealing.

Any distraction or competing behavior the person can think of would be a good technique. Whatever technique(s) used, don't lose sight of the real mission - natural, real, self punishment that comes at the thought of stealing.

If you want to STOP stealing,

you must STOP thinking about it.

Shoplifting is often portrayed as a glamorous way to be rebellious, and it is often written off as a "girl crime" - no big deal; just another phase that most girls go through. How does this 'safe risk' appeal to girls who want to get some attention or act out but aren't looking to do anything that's a MAJOR crime or a huge deal?

Honestly, the only place I ever hear of theft as a "girls crime" is when reading magazines. Most of us researches don't think that way. I think the notion that shoplifting is a girls crime came about because we all know girls shop more often than guys. Further, the vast majority of parents I have met have takent it very seriously when their daughter shoplifted. A "Phase" or not, parents are concerned and don't start with the assumption that it will stop on its own.

I recently talked with a soccer team of 13 year old girls and asked them about stealing. When talking one-on-one I heard some clear themes.

•  If I wanted something I could be tempted to steal.

•  If my friends pressured me I might go ahead and do it.

•  I'd never steal.

•  There is nothing safe about shoplifting.

It was clear that this is a time when the "rules" have not been well thought out. I told one of the girls, Reagan, that I heard two conflicting messages - I'd never steal and, maybe I'd steal if I wanted something. Reagan agreed and then said, "I'd never steal, but to answer your question, if I did steal, that would be why I'd do it."

Clearly this is that rebellious time in their life when these girls are trying to figure out - on their own - what they believe is good and bad, right and wrong. It seems clear that shoplifting is one of those issues that many girls haven't worked through yet. I ended my conversation with each of the girls by saying, "Stealing always hurts other people.", maybe it would help if you asked yourself if you'd be willing to hurt other people by shoplifting?"

 

Teen Vogue Follows up :)

From: Diana Estigarribia [mailto:Diana_Estigarribia@condenast.com]
Sent: Monday, June 22, 2009 12:52 PM
To: s.houseworth@verizon.net
Subject: Teen Vogue/Shoplifting story
Importance: High

Hi Steve,

How are you? I'm the researcher on our story written by Marisa Meltzer. I'd like to review the story with you. Can you let me know if the following is correct?

  1. First, spelling of your name and your title: Steve Houseworth, founder and executive director of Theft Talk Counseling Service, a nonprofit agency that works with convicted   and "diverted"  shoplifters 
  2. You say that for girls on a tight budget, shoplifting   often appears to be   is fast and free and is pretty enticing. This is true especially when you can avoid going to Mom or Dad and hearing, 'No, you can't have that' 
  3. In the article we say that the mutual thrill of getting away with something can be an even greater rush than doing it alone, which is why shoplifting is so popular with groups-is this true?   No . . . I wouldn't say that.  I'd say that breaking the rules, getting away with breaking the rules and getting a free item is where the thrill is. Excitement comes in when there is someone to take the risk with and to share the "story" with.  Then, I'd say that courage comes in pairs and/or groups.  Courage is greatly enhanced when you are with someone and they are "en"couraging stealing.
  4. We also talk about legal consequences: we say that first offenses generally carry fines, probation, or community-service time, but once someone has been arrested multiple times on shoplifting charges, they can face jail time or juvenile detention.   Generally true.  Not many juveniles ever go to "detention" for shoplifting 1st time or multiple times - laws often prohibit it.  If a juvenile is a chronic thief and other interventions don't work a juvenile correctional facility of some sort is more likely than "detention".  I may be splitting hares for your readers but juvenile "detention" is typically thought of as a very short term place to hold someone while a long term plan can be worked out. The correctional facility is more of the actual outcome (the actual response) for the non responsive theft offender.  Punishment is not the purpose of detention or correctional facilities.  Detention is intended to "detain" temporarily.  Correctional facilities are truly intended to offer treatment, interventions, counseling. . . help.  The adult system has much more of a focus on "punishment" ... the juvenile justice system focuses on "accountabilty" and corrections.
  5. We also say that the value of the items stolen also play into sentencing. Theft of merchandise worth more than $500 can upgrade the charges from a misdemeanor to a felony; felony charges stay on your record and could affect your chances of getting a job years later.    This one too is difficult because every state is very different.  There are two issues in your questions: 1) value of item and 2) stay on your record (expunction).  
1)  The value of the item definately can move the charges from misdemeanor to felony but every state has a different dollar amount which determines the threshold.  You would be safer to say, "The more expensive the item stolen, the greater the liklihood that the charge will be a felony, (Generally, somewhere between $300 and $600 is the cut off)." 2)  Expunction (destroying your juvenile record) is a very complex subject.  Many states allow the entire record to be destroyed after a period of time (generally 5 years).  That said, "yes" I have seen many of kids not get into college and many of kids not get the job they wanted because they had a felony juvenile record.  Just this week I met with a young who wanted to go to school to be a vetrinarian.  She just found out she would not be accepted in the college she wanted and she could not become a vet - all because of the felony.

Finally we say that a growing number of girls are shoplifting and that it's "on the rise"--to your knowledge, do the stats back this statement up?    No, I don't have any data to support this one.  My database of 27 years and thousands of clients does not show a gender shift. 
  And, I have not seen any credible data, other than news reporters, saying that it is on the rise.  It may be but I don't see it and have no data to support it.
I'm under deadline and would greatly appreciate hearing back from you soon. Thanks so much for your help on this!

All best,
Diana

_______________

Diana Estigarribia
Researcher
Teen Vogue
4 Times Square
NY, NY 10036

 

 

 

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