Delinquent behavior in children and teenagers

What do you do when your child or your teenager breaks the law? How should you react when your child is caught stealing, shoplifting, using drugs or engaging in other types of delinquent behavior.

Childhood delinquency can feel like such a betrayal to a parent and it can make you so angry that it can make you want to give up on your child or retaliate with violence and aggression.

If your child – or a child or teen that you know –  is stealing or breaking the law, it’s worth remembering the words of the pioneering child psychoanalyst and paediatrician, Prof Donald Winnicott. In his book, The child, the family and the outside world, Winnicott describes the delinquent child or teenager as looking to society for a kind of parental support and containment. That is, firm, loving limits and the kind of guidance that goes hand in hand with safety, sensible love and protectiveness. A child who steals, as in other delinquent behavior, is looking for a firm, loving parent. He needs someone to protect him from himself. A teenager who breaks the law may have missed out on something he needed emotionally very early in his life. He is looking for that emotional something now.

Stealing and delinquency, says Winnicott, is a sign of hope for the child. It’s a sign that he hasn’t given up and he is looking for help from the world around him. When a child or teenager breaks the law, it’s an urgent SOS to the adults in his life to notice and react. Give your delinquent child – or the delinquent child in your care – the help he needs. Put him into psychotherapy. Listen and talk to him about what is going wrong in his life. Make a meaningful connection with him and help him to repair the damage he has done.

Parents and teachers have a window of opportunity to rescue children and teens from delinquency and crime. These kids need someone to help them to navigate this frightening, dangerous world, before they grow up and become frightening, dangerous adults themselves. Unless someone is able to reach out and offer emotional support to a delinquent child, that child may well turn into tomorrow’s criminal.


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