Q: I'm worried about my niece.

She is almost 10, headstrong, creative, a willing performer/entertainer.

She has been caught shoplifting, and worse, has lied about it, denying it even when caught by store security personnel.

My sister is at a loss for a way to deal appropriately with her daughter about this problem. She finds the habitual lying very frustrating.

The bare background: two children, my niece and an older brother. He is 12 -- quiet, small for his age, not many friends, a good soccer player and student. My niece: flamboyant, okay student, tough. Her mom teaches high school full time; Dad organizes industry trade shows and is out of town most of the time. He competes with son to win, always. Both parents use sarcasm as a form of humor and communication.

A: Shoplifting is actually more common than most parents realize. Children often succumb to a self-centered, irresistible urge to steal, first at 5 or 6, or later as a puberty rite at 11, or at 13 or 14, when they usually either shoplift with a group of friends or report back to the group about it.

However, this, almost surely, isn't what your niece is doing.

A 9-year-old who has to show off, act tough, steal and then lie about it is a distressed child. Every one of these actions is a plea for help -- a plea that should be answered as soon as possible.

To some extent, a child's personality is shaped in the very early years, but the middle years -- between 6 and 12 -- decide how adolescence will go. Unless some changes are made now, your niece will have some rough teen years ahead -- and so will her parents.

Your nephew may also have a rough time.

The goals he scores in soccer and the A's he makes at school are positive but they can't compensate for the losses he suffers when he competes against the knowledge, strength and experience of a father who needs to win, every time.

Sarcasm does grave damage in any relationship, particularly one as unequal as parent and child. It hurts the child's feelings often more than he can endure. A child reared with it either rebels or withdraws and, in time, may become sarcastic, too. Along the way, he or she may steal to feel important and lie to avoid ridicule.

The problems of these children didn't develop in a vacuum and they won't heal without help. When one person in a family has trouble, everyone has trouble and everyone has to pitch in to get it fixed. The best fixer will be a family therapist who will work with the family as a group (and occasionally with one or two members at a time), helping them recognize -- and change -- their destructive patterns.

First, your sister and brother-in-law must recognize the need for help and then look carefully for a counselor who is supportive, nonjudgmental and by all means, who has a good sense of humor. Among other things, they need to learn how to get a laugh without being sarcastic.

The therapist also might suggest a parents' support group for the mother and father to help them stay on course. It's a good way to discover how easily children can go astray and at how young an age. If parents realized that it takes the conscience as long to grow up as it takes the body and the mind, more children would be supervised much longer.

Your sister needs support and information -- the kind she'll find in a fine, sound book on moral development, Raising Good Children, by Dr. Thomas Lickona (Bantam, $15.95). It will help her see how the conscience progresses gradually until it flowers in the early to mid-teens. When the rules come naturally from within, a child can walk into the forest, find a well-identified, well-stuffed wallet and automatically notify the owner, even though no one saw her but the chipmunks.

The popular new game, Scruples, which deals with moral dilemmas, would be a good game for this family to play, but the two children need more than that, for they must build their confidence.

The boy would profit from the camaraderie of the Boy Scouts and the discipline of karate lessons, but the girl needs more intense support. This shouldn't be seen as a reward for stealing and lying -- she's surely been restricted for that -- but as a way to help her change direction.

Lessons in music, drama, ballet or art will build her creative strengths, and a part in a play would make her feel better about herself. Most communities have amateur theatricals in churches and recreation centers.

If a child gets positive attention, she won't go after the negative, which will give her the heart to try harder in school and especially at home, where her parents' approval is so important to her.

This is hard to believe but it's true: Parents never know how much their children love them -- and children never know how much they are loved by their parents. The enormity seems more than either can imagine or express. When this love is demeaned by ridicule or rebellion, the pain is so tremendous that everyone fights back, whether by stealing or lying or sarcasm. This just makes the cycle, and the hurt, get worse.

It's important for your sister's family to break the pattern, and it's important to break it now.