Understanding Kleptomania: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Reader’s Question

I would like to know more about kleptomania — the early signs someone has it, the behaviors that characterize it, when it starts, and how it affects a child who continues with it through adulthood.

Do kleptomaniacs believe that stealing is wrong? How can it be treated?

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s important to make a distinction. Kleptomania is not merely shoplifting or stealing. The main reason people shoplift is to secure an item that has value without paying for it, whether they intend to possess the item or sell it for a profit. For that reason, stealing or shoplifting is usually accompanied by premeditation and an intent to incur personal gain at someone else’s expense.

People who engage in kleptomania often take items that have little actual value. They might even take items as common as paper clips, pencils, or paper napkins. Most importantly, kleptomaniacs are most often not motivated by personal or financial gain but rather the irresistible impulse to take something. Their behavior is usually not premeditated and, to a certain extent, they might not be fully conscious of what they’re doing.

Kleptomania usually first manifests itself during adolescence, but signs of it can become evident even in childhood. Early signs can be unexplained, seemingly irrational attempts to take or hoard items with little intrinsic value.

Although traditionally thought of as a variant of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), kleptomania appears to have much more in common with the addictive behaviors, and the concordance rate between kleptomania and OCD is actually fairly low. The disorder actually co-occurs more frequently with persons who have Borderline Personality Disorder, Paranoid Disorder, or impulse control problems related to the after-effects of various types of brain injury or trauma.

Treatment for the disorder can include the use of medications that improve impulse control as well as behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

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