Teens at Muir Wood enjoy game night


Kleptomania, or the compulsive urge to steal, often begins in the teenage years. In adolescence, the desire to take risks is strong. Stealing from family members, friends or shops can cause a rush of adrenaline while giving the teenager a sense of power. The act of stealing can relieve anxiety, produce a sense of pleasure, or fulfill a need for emotional gratification. Teens who feel out of control, depressed or neglected are especially vulnerable to the temptations of kleptomania.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, kleptomania affects approximately 1.2 million Americans and is responsible for about 5 percent of shoplifting cases in the United States. Classified as an impulse control disorder, kleptomania is characterized by the failure to overcome the impulse to take things that don’t belong to you. Even though kleptomania can cause shame, public humiliation, family conflicts and legal problems, the kleptomaniac is often unable to stop without intensive professional treatment — especially when drug or alcohol abuse are involved.

Risk Factors for Kleptomania

What makes some teenagers give in to the impulse to steal while others are able to resist? Kleptomania may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, by a family history of the disorder or by environmental influences. Although the exact reasons for kleptomania are a mystery, the NYU Langone Medical Center notes that there are certain factors that increase the risk of developing this disorder:

  • A history of traumatic brain injury
  • Having another psychiatric disorder, such as depression or anxiety
  • Having an eating disorder, such as bulimia nervosa
  • Having another impulse control disorder
  • A pattern of substance abuse

Teens shoplift or steal for a lot of reasons: to impress their peers, to acquire things they want or to obtain easy cash. But in order to meet the diagnostic criteria for kleptomania, stealing must take place in order to satisfy a psychological need, not for financial gain or for personal convenience.

Kleptomania and Drug Abuse

According to Clinical Innovations in Neuroscience, people with kleptomania have higher rates of substance abuse and co-occurring psychiatric disorders than the general population. Mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder) and anxiety disorders are common among teens who steal compulsively.

Most of the risk factors for kleptomania point to an imbalance of neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, in the brain. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are responsible for our moods and energy levels. When levels of these chemicals are too low, the brain may trigger a desire for intense experiences that provoke chemical changes in the central nervous system, such as taking drugs, abusing alcohol or stealing.

Fortunately, there are healthy ways to correct these chemical imbalances and help teens lead sober, satisfying lives without addiction treatment program for teens with substance use disorders and kleptomania.

Helping a Teen With Kleptomania

When parents find out that their son has been stealing, they often react with shame, anger or frustration. But it’s important to understand that teens with this disorder lack the ability to control their impulses. They may be just as disturbed and as mystified by the behavior as their parents — if not more so. In fact, kleptomaniacs often suffer from severe guilt and remorse over their actions.

The addiction treatment specialists at Muir Wood have over 25 years of experience helping young teens recover from substance abuse and co-occurring psychiatric disorders. We begin our individualized treatment programs with an intensive psychological assessment to identify the underlying issues of drug or alcohol abuse in our young clients. We encourage you to call our toll-free number anytime to find out how we can help you and your teenager find the path to recovery.