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Rebels Without a Cause : Why do young people shoplift? Peer pressure. Cheap thrills. Trendy clothes.

December 29, 1993|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tricia remembers the first--and last--time she stole anything. When the 16-year-old walked into Montgomery Ward with a group of friends, she says her heart was pounding: "I thought I was going to get caught."

She did.

"We had all walked in the store together," she explains. "One of my friends had got a bag for everybody and we put the shirts in the bag. I was scared. We saw a security guard and dropped the stuff. Then some more security guards came in the door we were going to leave. . . . They handcuffed us and put us in the office."

Guards took Tricia and her friends to the police station, where she was booked and later put on informal probation for six months.

"I was shocked," her mother, Janet, says. "She didn't have to do it, because she gets everything she wants."

Tricia says she shoplifted mostly " 'cause my friends were doing it."

Although store managers and security experts agree that shoplifters can be any age, initiation often begins in the teens, and sometimes among kids as young as 10 or 11. Psychologists say more girls shoplift than boys, but store owners and law enforcement officials say the numbers of those apprehended are about evenly split between the sexes.

Most youths steal because of peer pressure, the thrill of breaking rules or simply because they want something.

For others, the reasons are darker. Psychologists say the thrill and danger can provide a rush that temporarily relieves depression or fills unmet emotional needs.

And a few make the leap from prankster to professional, devising elaborate schemes and learning early the lucrative rewards of selling hot merchandise.

Clinical psychologist Edna Hermann divides teen shoplifters into two groups: normal teen-agers looking for excitement and kleptomaniacs.

For most youths, she says, shoplifting is an expression of normal teen rebellion and satisfies real material wants.

"It's maybe part of the peer culture," she says. "There is the rush of danger. Would they be caught? Wouldn't they? There is also wanting something they need immediately. 'If I have this lipstick, I will be beautiful for my date.' At a home where the family is on a budget and there isn't money for all the frills, this satisfies the need for beautiful things."

Sometimes, though, shoplifters try to fill an empty space in their lives by pouring in pilfered items.

"Sometimes people steal to replace the emotional deprivation, the lack of love, lack of attention they feel at home," Hermann says. "It doesn't have anything to do with the value of what they steal. They are replenishing depleted emotional supplies for themselves."

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Along with traditional traumas of adolescence--dates, grades and parents who just don't understand--teen-agers today face life-threatening crises that generate a powerful need for escape, says clinical psychologist Michael Peck. And some use shoplifting as an anti-depressant, much as some people use drugs, he says.

"We see a lot of depression in young adolescents. Years ago, we thought teen-agers could not get depressed. It's harder for a child to enter adolescence in the '80s and '90s than in the '50s and '60s. It's more achievement-oriented (now). There's more scary threats. Thirty, 40 years ago, we didn't worry about drugs, didn't worry about gang violence," he says.

And the struggle to provide materially for their children may leave parents less time to help teen-agers through the terrors of growing up, Hermann adds.

"They could have all the money in the world and they'll shoplift, just to get their parents' attention, because they're not giving them love," says Suzy, 17, shopping for shoes at Eagle Rock Plaza.

On the other hand, parents who don't heed their children's need for independence may inadvertently encourage them to shoplift as well, says clinical psychologist Robert Rome, adding that youths who lack privacy at home may not respect private property of store owners.

"My two friends were, like, neurotic until they got caught," Jovie Lopez, 19, says while snacking at the Westside Pavilion. "They were always shoplifting clothes. . . . One of them, she was an abused child. She used to run away all the time.

"The other one, her parents were divorced and she lived with her father, and he was a wacko man. He'd take her stuff and keep it. . . . They didn't have any privacy, that's true. And plus, they did need new clothes and they couldn't afford any."

The conflicting desires of teen-agers to establish their individuality and to fit in with the group find a focal point in fashion. Styles change by the season, month or week, and an urgent need for $100 running shoes or $50 jeans can keep kids racing on a treadmill to win acceptance.

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