Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Kleptomania is the inability to resist the urge to steal which is usually not for personal or financial gain. In most cases, people suffering from this disorder don’t need the things they steal. The items are usually of little or no value and the individual can easily afford them if they decide to pay.

What Is Kleptomania?

It is classified as an impulse control disorder and the person suffering from this disorder has a psychological compulsion to steal. According to a study 1, Kleptomania is characterized by “repetitive, uncontrollable stealing of items not needed for personal use, is a disabling disorder that often goes unrecognized in clinical practice.” Some of the main characteristics of this disorder indicate that kleptomania can be an “obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder” but also share similarities with “addictive disorders” and “mood disorders”.

Read More About Mood Disorders Here

Understanding Kleptomania

Kleptomania was coined by the French Psychiatrists Esquirol and Marc in the 19th century. This is a condition characterized by the uncontrolled urgency to steal. A 2011 study 2 characterized Kleptomania as “recurrent episodes of compulsive stealing.” The condition is often found to be underdiagnosed and is associated with other disorders such as anxiety and eating disorders, and alcohol and substance abuse. It is often found in children. Studies 3 have found that some kind of genetic link is shared between kleptomania and substance use disorders. According to research 4, 73 percent of people with this disorder are also diagnosed with an affective disorder at some point in their lives. One 2011 study 5 explains that “the condition is often kept a secret by the patient, and usually help is sought only when confronted by the legal consequences of impulsive behaviors.”

Individuals who steal items often store the items away somewhere or may get rid of it by giving it to their friends and family or returning it to the owner. The urgency to steal usually occurs in a public setting. However, the intensity of the urgency varies from one person to the other. Some individuals may often avoid committing theft where they can be caught such as places with security personnel or cameras. This disorder is linked to strong compulsive and impulsive qualities and it can be viewed as a variation of obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, along with pathological gambling, compulsive buying, pyromania, nail-biting, and trichotillomania.

Kleptomania At A glance

  1. Kleptomania is an impulse control disorder which causes an uncontrollable urge to steal items not needed for personal use or monetary gain.
  2. It is often unrecognized in clinical practice and underdiagnosed.
  3. The condition is associated with other disorders such as anxiety and eating disorders, and alcohol and substance abuse.
  4. Kleptomania is observed in both children and adults.
  5. Around 43-55% of individuals with kleptomania have a co-occurring personality disorder.

Signs And Symptoms Of Kleptomania

People who suffer from this condition usually experience an adrenaline rush of fear before stealing and a release of anxiety and stress after the deed is done. Studies 6 have found that stealing has often resulted in feelings of relief, gratification, and pleasure.

The important symptoms of Kleptomania include:

  • Repetitive urgency to steal
  • Failure to resist the temptation to steal
  • Stealing items that are of little or no value
  • Feelings of pleasure after the act of theft is completed
  • Stealing doesn’t involve any planning and is often a spontaneous act

According to one study 7, “the person may feel relieved from stress and anxiety after the act of theft but it is usually followed by guilt or remorse after the act has been committed.” Feelings of shame and guilt are quite common after stealing. It is important to take into consideration that people suffering from this disorder have no intention of stealing for any personal or financial gain.

Read More About Stress Here

Kleptomania In Children

It is not uncommon for children to steal things without knowing any better. Children under the age of 5 are prone to taking things that are exciting for them. When you notice your young toddler finds stealing you can discipline them that it’s wrong. There can be a number of reasons why older children are stealing and it’s rarely been due to a necessity. Sometimes, older children steal out of wit or when they try to impress their friends. In some cases, they do it to get attention.

Research 8 reveals that when stealing is still persistent it may indicate behavioral or emotional developmental problems. This can be due to an unstable home environment or genetic factors that can trigger these issues. Children who continue stealing often have difficulty trusting and can blame it on other people.

Kleptomania In Adults

Adults can steal for different reasons altogether. Adults can steal for any personal or financial gains. This often can lead to the criminalization of theft. They are often minor thefts like stealing boxes of tissues or a plush robe from a hotel room. Kleptomania is also a cause of stealing in adults. It is often items that are of little or no value. It is an impulse control disorder and the person stealing often regrets it after the act is committed.

Conditions Associated With Kleptomania

Conditions associated with Kleptomania

Studies have found that almost 43 percent to 55 percent of individuals with kleptomania have a co-occurring personality disorder. Paranoid personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder are the most common ones among them. This disorder often occurs alongside other disorders. They are:

  • Mood Disorders
  • Panic Disorders
  • Separation Anxiety Disorders
  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Other Impulse Control Disorders
  • Substance and Alcohol Abuse

There are several comorbidities associated with this disorder as well. They are as follows:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Eating disorders

Read More About Bipolar Disorders Here

Causes Of Kleptomania

Causes of Kleptomania

The research for the causes of kleptomania is still in progress. However, it has been found genetic and environmental factors play a major role in this disorder. A few possible explanations have been found under the different perspectives of psychology. They are as follows:

1. The Psychoanalytic Theory

This approach explains that some people are drawn to obtain objects in order to symbolically compensate for loss or neglect. According to this approach, treatment for the disorder can be done by discovering the underlying motivations for the behavior. Drive theory was used to propose that stealing was a defense mechanism that helps to modulate or keep unwanted feelings or emotions from being expressed.

2. The Cognitive Behavioral Theory

The early signs of this disorder may begin when an individual is positively reinforced for stealing something. When the first theft is committed with no negative consequences the likeliness of this behavior reoccurring is increased. With time, every act of stealing with no negative consequences becomes stronger making it much more likely to continue. Thus, when a person finds themselves in a situation with such environmental cues they are unable to resist the urge to steal.

Since the act of theft gives the individual the feeling of relief, the behavior also becomes associated with stress relief. As time passes, the individual may use stealing as a coping mechanism to relieve their stress and anxiety.

3. Biological Models

This model suggests that the condition may be linked with specific regions of the brain and possible dysregulations of certain neurotransmitters. Some studies 9 have found a direct link between the emergence of kleptomania to dysfunction in the frontal lobe of the brain.
In two cases, blunt trauma to the frontal lobe resulted in several symptoms such as dizziness, behavioral symptoms such as aggression, and cognitive symptoms such as memory loss by the sudden emergence of kleptomania-related behaviors.

Diagnosis For Kleptomania

This disorder is typically diagnosed by a physician or mental health professional. Since kleptomania is usually co-occurred with other conditions such as eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance and abuse disorders, it is often diagnosed when people are referred to a doctor for their comorbid psychiatric symptoms. Diagnosis may also occur if there is an arrest for stealing. After a physical examination, the patient may be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further evaluation. This involves utilizing patient interviews and a review of legal records.

There can also be administering psychometric scales such as Kleptomania Symptoms Assessment Scale (K-SAS 10 ), the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale, Modified for Kleptomania (K-YBOCS 11 ) that can help the doctor to diagnose the patient with this disorder. The behavioral symptoms like the secretive nature of the disorder as well as associated feelings of guilt and shame can sometimes interfere with the diagnosis and treatment.

Read More About Anxiety Here

Treatment For Kleptomania

Treatment for Kleptomania

Here are some of the most common and effective treatment options available for this condition –

1. Medications

There are several medications that have been found to reduce the symptoms. Studies have found that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), as well as other antidepressants, have been found to be effective in treating the symptoms of kleptomania. Lithium and Valproic acid have also been found to have helped. The most frequently used drug is naltrexone.

2. Psychotherapy And Counseling

Psychotherapy and counseling is often the best treatment option for impulse control disorders. There are several methods adopted in the case of patients suffering from this disorder. They are:

A. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This therapy is used to evaluate the thoughts and patterns that govern the individual’s behavior and replace it with a positive thought process. CBT has been found to be effective for patients suffering from this disorder.

Read More About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Here

B. Covert Sensitization

This therapy requires the patient to picture themselves stealing and then facing negative consequences such as being caught.

C. Aversion Therapy

This therapy is a form of psychological treatment in which the patient is exposed to a stimulus. The patient is given therapy for aversion to unwanted behavior. The patient is required to practice mildly painful techniques to avert unwanted behavior. For example, holding your breath until you become uncomfortable when you get an urge to steal.

D. Systemic Desensitization

This therapy 12 involves practicing relaxation techniques to learn to control the urges to steal. It is a graduate exposure therapy where the process is gradually inculcated in the daily routine of the patient.

Recovery From Kleptomania

Kleptomania is a serious psychiatric condition that can have a major impact on a person’s daily life. This disorder can lead to a substantial amount of distress since it can lead to serious legal consequences if the person involved gets caught. Arrest, incarceration, and legal costs are very common in cases of kleptomania.

With the right treatment and medication, the patient can find ways to cope with their impulses and replace those negative behaviors with positive ones. If you think you may have this disorder and you feel the symptoms then it’s always wise to consult the doctor in order to devise a treatment plan. This disorder can’t be cured but it can definitely be treated. If you’ve not been doing well, seeking help is always a good decision.

👇 References:
  1. Grant J. E. (2006). Understanding and treating kleptomania: new models and new treatments. The Israel journal of psychiatry and related sciences, 43(2), 81–87. []
  2. Talih F. R. (2011). Kleptomania and potential exacerbating factors: a review and case report. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 8(10), 35–39. []
  3. Grant, J. E., Odlaug, B. L., & Kim, S. W. (2010). Kleptomania: clinical characteristics and relationship to substance use disorders. The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse, 36(5), 291–295. https://doi.org/10.3109/00952991003721100 []
  4. Baylé, Franck & Caci, Hervé & Millet, Bruno & Richa, Sami & Olié, Jean. (2003). Psychopathology and Comorbidity of Psychiatric Disorders in Patients With Kleptomania. The American journal of psychiatry. 160. 1509-13. 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.8.1509. []
  5. Talih F. R. (2011). Kleptomania and potential exacerbating factors: a review and case report. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 8(10), 35–39. []
  6. Saluja, B., Chan, L. G., & Dhaval, D. (2014). Kleptomania: a case series. Singapore medical journal, 55(12), e207–e209. https://doi.org/10.11622/smedj.2014188 []
  7. Grant, Jon & Odlaug, Brian. (2008). Kleptomania: Clinical characteristics and treatment. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (São Paulo, Brazil : 1999). 30 Suppl 1. S11-5. 10.1590/S1516-44462006005000054. []
  8. []
  9. Grant, J. E., Correia, S., & Brennan-Krohn, T. (2006). White matter integrity in kleptomania: a pilot study. Psychiatry research, 147(2-3), 233–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2006.03.003 []
  10. Asami, Y., Nomura, K., Shimada, H., Ohishi, H., & Ohishi, M. (2020). Validity and reliability of the Japanese version of the kleptomania symptom assessment scale: A comparison between individuals with kleptomania and prisoners in Japan. Comprehensive psychiatry, 96, 152133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2019.152133 []
  11. Grant, J. E., Kim, S. W., & Odlaug, B. L. (2009). A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the opiate antagonist, naltrexone, in the treatment of kleptomania. Biological psychiatry, 65(7), 600–606. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.11.022 []
  12. Lúcio Roberto Marzagão, Systematic desensitization treatment of kleptomania, Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Volume 3, Issue 4, 1972, Pages 327-328, ISSN 0005-7916, https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7916(72)90059-6. []
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