he's got to stop it
March 25, 2009 4:05 PM   Subscribe

How to put a young man on the right path ?

My wife has a son from a previous marriage. He's 18. His father lives far away, in another country. He has a lot of money and carries very large sums in his pockets. His business, as far as I know, is perfectly licit. Two years ago, the boy began to steal money. He stole 400$ in a moneybox that I had been keeping for a long time (I was suspicious because the moneybox wasn't doing the same sound as when it was full of banknotes. I broke it and all the banknotes were gone, but there was a pin inside, which was lost in the operation of extracting the notes). We confronted him, and he confessed he had done it.

Back to quietness for some time, and then we noticed that some money was disappearing again. Some change that was purposely left in the car. Some withdrawals on my wife's balance sheets were unexplained. His father told us that after his son had been visiting him, during some holidays, he had noticed that some money was missing. We talked about it with his grandfather : he had some money missing too, in a drawer of his desk. And then we discovered that he had stolen money from his uncles (both of them), his grandmother, my parents - he took the keys to their house that were on my desk, went to their place as he knew they were gone for a few days, and proceeded to find money by searching all over the place - needless to say, everyone was confused to have to say that he was stealing from them. Once again, we confronted him, but it was much harder to have him confess his stealings.

We summed up everything to know what he had to pay back, told him that any money or gifts from anyone in December were bound to participate to the payment of his debt, and that his pocket money was going to be tremendously reduced for the same reasons. We asked him to give back the money and discuss with each person he had been stealing from.

Apparently, that money was used to bet on the results of soccer matches. He began by losing a little, and proceeded to bet more and more money to get back the whole sum he had lost previously.

He's not working at school right now. He said he wanted to be a journalist, but most schools only accept people who have a basic college degree here, so I told him to study Law, or History, or Economics.... whatever he wants, as long as it appeals to him and he gets some pleasure out of it. He chose Law (?) but apparently, the results are going to be poor, since he doen'st seem to get really involved (to get involved at all)

He says that he's going to work in a restaurant or a factory to make some money but he doesn't search actively and to me, it sounds like he's once again in dreamland (looks like there's a crisis around).

Well. The problem is that his grandfather and his uncle have noticed that once again, some money has disappeared. He even confessed that he had stolen greater sums from his father (apparently, around 3000 $). So his debt has exploded once again.We thought that we had been through it and that it was over, but unfortunately it wasn't true.

I don't know what to do now. We have difficulties to trust him, and while he's asking us to trust him - he says that his father does, and that it's a big difference between him and us - I can't help but feeling that the trust issue is but a way to negotiate some more room to carry on without changing anything at all.

I've checked :

But it doesn't really address the issue since obviously we don't want to press any charge against him . I think that we need a way to show him what Law is, but I don't quite see how to effectively do it : to tell him isn't enough. There is a boundary that he doesn't really see, and he even stated once that he's not into the "moral thing". Well, I think that you can imagine what chasm opens in front of your feet when a young man whith the problems described above tells you that. He has begun a light sort of therapy to meditate upon his behaviour a little while ago, but apparently, it hasn't induced any major change - yet.

Thanks for any useful advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry this has happened but "tough love" is the only thing that will work now.

You have not sent him the signals to date that it is COMPLETELY unacceptable to steal large sums of money from anyone, let alone family members.

You have all been irresponsible in allowing this situation to get so far.

I'm going to posit that in your culture a lot more leeway is given to young men than in mine.

If this was my father and my brother (OK Ireland in the 1980s-1990) he would be beaten black and blue seven ways from Sunday. As would I if I did what you describe.

If you are not willing to use the Law, then he will have no respect for what you propose.

The only other solution is to literally make it impossible for him to spend money without significant social humilation.
posted by Wilder at 4:15 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

In the US there is a Gambler's Anonymous support group. If his theft is related to a gambling problem, maybe there is a similar organization in your country that can help. (I'm assuming you're outside the US.) It seems like he is beyond "a light sort of therapy." He needs serious help.

Also, he's 18. There is likely very little you can simply say to make him understand his ways are wrong. He's an adult. And if he's intent on stealing, he will need to deal with the adult consequences of his actions - either now, via his parents - or later via police & thieves.
posted by gnutron at 4:22 PM on March 25, 2009

We summed up everything to know what he had to pay back, told him that any money or gifts from anyone in December were bound to participate to the payment of his debt, and that his pocket money was going to be tremendously reduced for the same reasons. We asked him to give back the money and discuss with each person he had been stealing from.

His pocket money is going to be reduced?! Oh my god, how will he survive?!

Kick his ass out of the house. Quit giving him *any* money. Quit leaving money where he can find it if he's around. Call the police and file charges and encourage everyone he's stolen from to do the same. He's not into the "moral thing" and he's obviously trying to make you feel bad for the difference in your relationship with him and the one he has with his father (which is probably bullshit, anyhow.) You should tell your family (et al) NOT to give him any gifts OR money.

YOU HAVE NO REASON TO TRUST HIM. Yeah, I'd wish the person I was stealing from would trust me too, without my having to do anything (like getting a job), if I were stealing.

And for what it's worth, my lovely parents would also have beaten me (probably on a tram or something, for maximum message clarity and embarrassment) and they would have been right to do so. This child is allowed to live in a dream world where he needs to do nothing, can steal at will with no consequences and yet demands trust. I wish you the best, but you are doing nothing right so far, from what I can tell.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:26 PM on March 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

Additionally, I would demand - for whatever course of action you take - that he fully disclose every last bit of money he's ever stolen, so if you find out later he lied (and unless he turns up a bunch of occasions you don't already know about, you can assume it's a lie) then you know he's still hiding things.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:31 PM on March 25, 2009

If your son does have a gambling problem, then it's quite possible that neither beating him nor kicking him out of the house would solve the issue unless the gambling is treated first. I agree that he should not be provided with pocket money that would enable problem gambling.

You don't say whether he is still spending the stolen money on gambling debts, but please take a look at the following to see if they fit your boy:

Gamblers Anonymous: 20 Questions

The National Council on Problem Gambling: FAQs

Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling: Signs, Help, and Treatment

Best to you.
posted by jeeves at 4:52 PM on March 25, 2009

You haven't really mentioned whether he's explained why he's stealing when he's got plenty of money of his own. Are we talking about a compulsive kleptomaniac here, or a kid who's lashing out against his caretakers as a method of taking control, or a brat who's taking advantage, or what? Because if he's hinted at having problems of some sort, then obviously beating the crap out of him isn't the solution (actually, I don't think that's the solution anyway...). He sounds like a mess to me, not a mafioso in the making.

No matter what, though, I think you're all enabling him. Stop making it so easy for him to steal. Make his therapy a lot more hard core, and targeted towards what his specific problem is. Don't give him cash gifts at holidays and birthdays.

On the positive side, offer to help him get a job, perhaps (I mean by helping him polish his application, not nepotism), and if he's not doing well in Law, encourage him to switch to something else before he wastes too much time doing something he's obviously not good at.
posted by bettafish at 4:57 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are absolutely no serious consequences to his actions, so why would he stop doing something that is so easy to do that has such a tremendous upside? I mean Jesus, he stole from everyone in your family and rewarded him with a college education!

You must build significant consequences for him. He's not working in school and there will be bad results this term? Fine. Yank him out of school. You are done paying his tuition. He gets a job - any job - and works to pay everyone back the money he owes. That is his ONLY job, and nothing nothing nothing else in his life moves forward until he faces what he's done.

We have difficulties to trust him, and while he's asking us to trust him - he says that his father does, and that it's a big difference between him and us - I can't help but feeling that the trust issue is but a way to negotiate some more room to carry on without changing anything at all.

Well, I've been asking for a pony, but that's not going to happen either. Be clear that no, you do not trust him, because he's given you ample reason not to time after time. And don't feel guilty about that; trust is something that is earned through honourable behaviour, which he is not exhibiting.

As to the sob story about how his father trusts him, well that's nice. But irrelevent. Because he does not live with his father. Speaking of which, you need to make sure you, your wife and the boy's father are all on the same page with this: the kid gets no money, is not given the out of living with dad, etc.

You've been very reasonable, forgiving, and lenient. It hasn't worked. Do something else now.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:36 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this could be a gambling problem or a drug problem or most likely of all some combination of one or both in addition to a mental illness like depression, OCD, etc.

Tough love might solve *your* problems of losing money (and may be necessary to protect the rest of the family) but it's not necessarily going to solve his. Those who propose it make the assumption that tough consequences have only one result: the person being woken up and changing.

In reality, that result may occur-- or they might descend into worse addiction, mental illness and crime. You don't know. Some kids have died when their parents practiced it, some kids have never forgiven their parents, some have gotten better. Since there are usually alternatives, tough love should only be done to protect yourself or other loved ones when other stuff has failed.

What are these alternatives? There's an approach to helping addicted family members called CRAFT (community reinforcement and family therapy) that was found to be twice as likely to get people into treatment as the typical confrontational "intervention."

The essence of the alternatives to tough love is that people are most likely to change when they want to change for their own reasons. Determining what drives the unwanted behavior and offering alternate ways of getting that is often more effective than adding pain which tends to drive addictive behavior. Figuring this out requires talking to him and it may be helpful to find a counselor who practices something called "motivational interviewing" which "meets the person where they're at" and works on their goals with them, aiming at reducing harm all around.

Also critical is getting a complete psychiatric evaluation from someone who has no incentive to make a particular diagnosis (ie, someone not affiliated with any treatment program and not wedded to the idea that he's an addict etc), usually academic psychiatrists are good for this. Getting the person to see someone can be a lot easier than you might think if it is framed as, I think you're hurting and using the wrong drugs to fix it, not as "I want to take away all your fun," which is how most stuff by parents is received.

if there's something other than addiction going on, if you don't know what it is, you can't help with it and it will likely drive relapse.
posted by Maias at 5:47 PM on March 25, 2009

At this rate, regardless of how he does in school, he'll never be admitted to practice law, because stealing money cuts directly against the character and fitness requirements.

I say kick him out. He's 18. He's an adult. Yeah, seems a bit harsh as a first resort, but this isn't a first resort, and he's no longer a child, so the kind of remedies one might apply to correct a child aren't applicable here. But seriously, it's not like you were actually doing anything to correct his behavior before. You reduced his allowance after he stole $3000? Why he should be getting a dime after a stunt like that is beyond me.

You are under no obligation to house this young man in your home. Give him two weeks to find a job and other quarters. If, once he's held down a job for a few months, he wants to move back in to save on expenses, you might consider giving him a chance. But if he doesn't learn this lesson now, he's going to learn it the hard way in a year or two, because eventually he's going to steal from someone who will press charges.
posted by valkyryn at 5:57 PM on March 25, 2009

You're doing him a disservice and wasting your time with your current tactics.

The money is not the issue. You can live without your money. The issue is in ten years you will have an unemployed, substance addicted, loser on your hands.

Force him to make restitution. You hold all the cards. Kick him out if he doesn't get a job this week. Cut off the money. Carrot and stick, it's very simple.

I don't condone violence but this kid probably needs a punch in the face and his shit thrown to the curb. Don't do that, of course, but he sounds like a spoiled baby. You're still giving him pocket money? Outrageous! If my kid told me he wasn't into the "moral thing", I'd probably kill him. Or, give him a scathing lecture on how he doesn't have a fucking clue.

I'm not judging. Obviously you care for your step-son, but you need to tighten up before this turns into a complete nightmare.
posted by Fairchild at 6:11 PM on March 25, 2009

He is 18. An adult. I think he needs to experience life on its own terms -- that is, out on his own, fully supporting himself, and facing any consequences of his actions. It's not harsh, it's very reasonable.

I'm personally not a big fan of the idea of beating him (!). But instead, I'd change the locks (and have all other family members change the locks) and tell him it's time to be an independent adult.

Of course, you want to do what you can to set him up well in life -- funding education, etc. But right now, he's not interested in school, so he should be interested in working. Having bills that must be paid to feed yourself generate interest in working.

You don't mention any problems between yourself and your wife in this issue, but to keep the peace, I'd recommend that all of this news is delivered by his mother and father instead of you, so that he really understands that it's a united front.
posted by Houstonian at 6:16 PM on March 25, 2009

Press charges if it happens again. Make clear to everyone you know that you intend to do so, and would not view them poorly for doing the same.
posted by phrontist at 6:20 PM on March 25, 2009

I'm not sure what I'd do in your situation, but I like to think it would include the following:

1) Make him account for every dime he has stolen.
2) Make him get a job in order to pay it all back.
3) Present him with an ultimatum that, if he steals again, it will be a matter for the police.
4) Assist him with therapy for his gambling/addiction/compulsiveness.
5) Participate with him in group therapy, since there is obviously a lot of enabling going on here.

It's obvious that your stepson lives in a world where there are no significant detrimental consequences for his criminal behavior. If he keeps this up, he'll eventually steal from the wrong person and find out that there are real consequences in the world, legal and otherwise, even for people who aren't into the "moral thing."

I think that we need a way to show him what Law is, but I don't quite see how to effectively do it : to tell him isn't enough.

Perhaps you should arrange a tour of a local prison. That might drive the point home. But I think the problem is deeper. He doesn't seem to have a basic respect for other people's property. Theft just doesn't seem problematic for him. And, as he's already a grown man, I'm not sure how that view will change w/o intensive therapy or a rude awakening.
posted by wheat at 6:26 PM on March 25, 2009

You need to find a way to explain to him that "the moral thing" isn't about protecting us from him.

Maybe he should be studying humanities instead of law.
posted by The Monkey at 7:09 PM on March 25, 2009

I'm echoing what Maias said above and adding a couple of points. Your son needs a psych work-up. Until he has one, you should reserve on taking any drastic action. I know you're at your wit's end. This is a complex and difficult situation.

Although 18 may be considered "an adult" chronologically, it is certainly not "an adult" cognitively. If it turns out he has no psych issues and is plainly just manipulative, then it's time to set stern boundaries including exclusion from your home. I presume he lives successfully away from home (by this I mean without stealing from anyone). So I would be reluctant to stop his education -- so long as he's performing, at minimum, at an average level. Your objective of making him a self-sufficient and self-supporting adult can probably only be achieved if he receives a proper education so pulling him out of school could ultimately be defeatist.

I strongly counsel against physical violence, which could get you in a world of trouble, after all. I also do not believe that turning your son over to the authorities is the right decision at this point in time. If he had been violent towards you or any other family members, I would feel quite differently about this. A criminal record and exposure to the criminal justice system should only be a very last resort.

Hopefully, this is a psych issue that can be addressed through medication and therapy. It is amazing how proper interventions can turn situations like this around. Perhaps you might askmi for a referral in your area.

Best wishes
posted by inkyr2 at 7:36 PM on March 25, 2009

People who are integrating broken families should not leave cash and credit cards around. To tempt someone who is emotionally fragile is WRONG. Do you leave a picnic basket on the table in the middle of Jellystone park and then blame the bears for feeding their hunger? No, you wouldn't. People are animals too you know.

At this point I would put all your money away, and have everyone do the same and change the locks. Now start fresh. Instill a "You either work, got to school or volunteer" policy in your home. That means everyone contributes. To either the family or the community. If they can't do one of those three things, then they do need to move out.

Don't worry about him saying he's not into the "moral thing" kids talk like that right now and it doesn't mean anything. Kids right now don't know where to look for guidance. Everything looks so corrupt. Stop tempting him. Be an island in the ocean where he doesn't have to make choices. Because you should already have clear family rules.

If you want to discuss setting rules in broken homes with me send me a mefi mail.
posted by cda at 8:23 AM on March 27, 2009

And also - I want to point out - maybe you aren't seeing this - that this is a classic age-old tired story - about how old men set up young men to get them out of the way. You don't want to be that guy do you?

Read about Mormon "lost boys" if you don't know what I am saying.

A bigger man would set up a kind of "baby-proofed" home - I mean teenaged-boy proof home. Lock up all the temptations. He should have a pay as you go cell phone. Driving is a privilege not a right. He should be either working, going to school or volunteering or he can't stay in your home.

Talk about money. Explain to him that being good with money = freedom.

Help him define a goal. It may not be a career but it may be living in a cool place like Patagonia or Bali. How can he have freedom and live wherever he wants if he gambles his money away? Look at real estate with him. A beach house in Bali costs 150,000$ dollars? How can he make that money? What career should he chose that would give him the kind of money so he could have freedom and live where ever he wants?

Or maybe it's an awesome car he wants. Or a vacation.

You should be working together towards something.

I'm writing this as a woman who has raised two boys into successful adults.
posted by cda at 10:29 AM on March 29, 2009

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