Why Kids Tattle and What To Do About It

why kids tattle and what to do about it

Three-and-a-half-year-old Sam is a sweet kid, but he’s in the habit of tattling on his older brother, Eric, who is 6 years old. Whenever Eric does something that Sam thinks isn’t nice or fair, he runs to their parents and tells on him. For example, if Eric takes one of Sam's toys or accidentally drops something, Sam runs to his parents and says, "I’m telling! Eric did it!” Let’s talk about why kids tattle and what to do about it.

Why Kids Tattle and What to Do About It


What is Happening from a Developmental Perspective

Tattling happens after a child has stopped managing problems in physical ways like hitting or biting but he or she hasn’t yet developed more sophisticated ways of solving things. Children who tattle have enough social-emotional skills to stop hitting, but not enough to solve problems without help. A 2-year-old will hit and a preschooler will tattle. Pre-schoolers are starting to understand right from wrong. They are very literal or concrete thinkers and they can get upset when the rules aren’t followed.


Why a Toddler Tattles 

 Most often when a toddler tattles, he’s basically saying, “I need you to hear me out, I need you to be infuriated along with me but I don’t really need you to do anything about it.” But there are also other reasons for tattling as well. A toddler may tattle to exert their power and see if they can get a rise out of you. Or they might tattle purely because they can’t get their sibling or friend to cooperate with them and they need some help. Toddlers may also tattle to get back at a sibling who has hurt their feelings one way or another. They want to get the other person in trouble. A tattler may also be looking for approval, to one-up their sibling. Or they may be looking for some appreciation. They may even think tattling is the right thing to do because toddlers love to follow the rules. 


How Should a Parent Respond to Tattling? 

 Reflect before you correct. This is something I’ve mentioned many times because it’s such a powerful parenting tool. Create a space or a moment between your child’s behavior and your response to it. In other words, just pause for a moment before saying a word. Use this moment to let your nervous system calm down. Then you can manage the messy moment with calmness and respect. Given that tattling reflects a lack of skills to manage problems, it makes sense to respond with respect and show your toddler that you understand. So, say something like, “It upsets you when your brother grabs your toys.” By doing this you are acknowledging your child’s voice which diminishes his or her need to snitch. You don’t need to jump in and solve the problem. Instead, Ask your child, “How can we solve x/y/z/?” This way you empower your child to manage problems instead of sending the message that an adult is needed to deal with siblings and peers. 

 When kids tattle because they feel someone is breaking the rules, you can acknowledge your child’s feelings like this, “Sometimes kids don’t follow the rules. I can see that upsets you because you try hard to do the right thing. ” That’s it. You don’t need to go and criticize the other child. 


A Good Side to Tattling 

 Now on the flip side, there’s a good side to one aspect of tattling we need to consider. Informing you when there’s a safety issue isn’t really tattling. It’s more like reporting. Reporting is letting you know about something that is potentially concerning. If the information protects or helps someone else, then this is informing and not tattling. For instance, if a sibling is upstairs crying. While we want to eventually shut down tattling, we never want our kids to feel uncomfortable letting us know that something worrisome or something that makes them feel uncomfortable is happening. 


How Can We Reduce Tattling Without Shutting Down Reporting? 

 We can reduce tattling without shutting down reporting by looking at things practically. I received an email last week about how to handle tattling. A mom shared they were having trouble with their 3.5-year-old daughter who had been tattling like crazy. The mom loves that her daughter felt comfortable enough to talk to both her and her husband, but she also wants to teach her how to handle things on her own and not to tattle on her friends or siblings over the small stuff. 

 Here are a few things not to say to a tattler: 

 “ Stop being a tattletale” 

“I don't want to hear it.”

“Don't be a baby.”

“Mind your own business”

“Get over it.”

When we realize that tattling means a toddler has moved past using their body to get their point across BUT at the same time they don’t yet have the social skills needed to solve problems, we can focus on equipping them with the skills needed to handle things on their own.


Skills to Equip Your Child With to Overcome Tattling 

The first thing to do is to help your child feel seen and heard, When you help your child feel seen, their need to tattletale gradually diminishes. You can empower your child by equipping them with the tools to manage problems on their own. Give them the words they need by saying things like,  “You’re upset that your sister wouldn’t share. I get it. But what could you say to her?” “How could you work this out?” “How do you think she’ll react when you say that?” “What else could you say or do if she still won’t share?” 

I’d even role-play this scenario so your child can practice problem-solving. Ultimately, don’t take sides or get involved. With time, tattletale will fizzle out. But in the meantime, also remember the power of exclusive time. For just 10 minutes a day, let your child choose what they want to do. Just the two of you for 10 minutes a day is a research-based way to ease messy toddler behaviors.


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