What do you do if you suspect your child is breaking the law?

Our agony aunt Mary Fenwick offers words of wisdom to help with whatever is troubling you. This time, a look at a complex family problem


What do you do if you suspect your child is breaking the law?

I suspect my son is stealing to make money. While hanging up clothes in my 16-year-old son’s bedroom recently, I found £300 at the back of his wardrobe. I was shocked; he only has a paper round, and I give him allowances, but there’s no way he could have saved that much. I confronted him about it and he admitted he’d been selling copper pipe to a breaker’s yard. When I asked where he’d got the pipe, he got angry and wouldn’t talk to me. I thought I’d brought up an honest, hard-working child; I can’t believe he’s been stealing to make money. I’m so disappointed, but the last thing I want  is to push him away so he continues down this route. What can I do? Name withheld

Many of us will pull an ‘ouch’ face, reading your letter. If we’re lucky enough to have healthy children, one day we’ll face A Big Test. This is yours. The good news is, you love your son enough to confront him. The bad news is, trading in scrap metal for cash is illegal in the UK.
The aim here is for a balance of love and boundaries, which is known as an ‘authoritative parenting’ style. Please note, not authoritarian. I suggest some words along these lines: ‘I love you. I wouldn’t be doing my job as your mother if I let you think this is OK. If it was anyone else, I’d talk to the police. I’d prefer us to work it out as a family, but I need you to tell me the whole story so I can judge.’ Also, invite him to do some research on the effect a criminal record or a police caution would have on his future. This pays him the compliment of believing in his judgement and reminding him he’s old enough to take responsibility for his decisions. He needs to give you a good reason not to go to the police. He needs to know he has touched not just a boundary, but an electric fence.

When the shock dies down, talk about earning money legally. This may mean help with writing a CV (include his paper round, any school responsibilities, voluntary activities) or role-playing how to find work (what’s the manager’s name? How do you spell that? When will they be free?). Perhaps you could volunteer to drive him to work until he’s old enough to pay for his transport, or match his first pay packet, to get him off to a good start. (While we’re at it, why isn’t he hanging up his own clothes?) You will be saying to him, as I’m saying to you: I know you can do the right thing, now get on with it.

Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email mary@psychologies.co.uk, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line

More inspiration

Visit psychology.about.com/od/childcare/f/authoritative-parenting.htm

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