Blog Masthead

How can I help my child curb the urge to tattle?

Father And Child Playing With Blocks

All parents and caregivers have likely experienced some degree of tattling from their children. While almost no child can resist the urge to tattle on occasion, it can quickly cross over to the ‘bad habit’ arena, disrupting your child’s relationships with other kids, annoying parents and interfering with their ability to independently problem solve.

Why Do Kids Tattle?

There are a number of reasons young children (mainly ages 4 to 10) tattle. Children who are beginning to learn about rules may struggle when they see other children not following the same rules. Some children are prone to tattling because they lack the social and emotional skills needed to solve problems on their own. Children with more ‘type A’ personalities may tattle to exert their power in a conflict with a peer and some may tattle to paint themselves in a positive light with a parent or teacher, boosting their self-esteem and garnering attention.

While it’s not always a bad thing–it can alert a parent or caregiver to a dangerous or harmful situation, for example–tattling can become a habit that inhibits your child’s ability to make or keep friends or challenge their ability to handle minor conflicts on their own. When it really becomes an issue is when children are utilizing tattling for the wrong reason, solely as a means to get someone in trouble and make themselves look good, instead of using it as a way to help others.

The Difference Between Tattling and Telling

Most childhood development and behavior experts agree that one of the most important steps parents and caregivers can take is by teaching their child the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘tattling.’ Simply put, tattling is reporting another child’s bad behavior when the overall situation is safe and could be handled by your child independently. Telling is informing adults when a situation is not safe to children involved and your child needs help managing the conflict or situation. Tattling to get someone in trouble can be mean-spirited and parents should explain this clearly to children. Telling, on the other hand, shows concern for others and a desire to help.

Parents and caregivers can help their child understand the difference by providing concrete examples that your child will be able to understand and relate to. For example: When your child’s little brother accidentally knocks down the block tower and quickly apologizes, it’s tattling. But when your child’s little brother pushes the block tower intentionally onto his baby sister, it’s telling. Tattling versus telling isn’t a one-and-done lesson, and your child will need to be gently reminded often about the differences. Lastly, there are some great free printable worksheets online that can help children visually learn the difference between tattling and telling. Check out www.savvyschoolcounselor.com or www.curriculumcastle.com for more resources.

How to Stop Tattling in Children

  • For parents and caregivers who struggle with a tattling child, there are some things that can be done beyond explaining the difference between tattling and telling and letting them know your expectations. If your child is having a hard time fighting the urge to tattle, keep these things in mind:
  • Don’t punish the tattler. We want our children to trust us as parents and caregivers and feel comfortable coming to us when they have a problem they need help with. Strictly punishing the tattler leads to feelings of shame that could ultimately lead to them not alerting an adult when something is actually dangerous.
  • But don’t reward them either. When safety isn’t at stake, take care to not reward the tattler by punishing the child they tattle on. When parents take the tattler’s side, they reinforce the bad habit, discourage independent problem solving and also run the risk of punishing the other child unfairly, as tattler’s can be prone to exaggerate.
  • Come up with alternate solutions together. When your child runs into a conflict or challenging situation and feels the urge to tattle, help them brainstorm other ways to handle the situation. Explain different ways to handle a variety of interactions before they happen. Some examples may include helping your child figure out what they should do if someone calls them a name, someone touches their personal belongings or someone cheats. Make sure your child sees they have choices beyond tattling.
  • Point out tattling in other children. For some children, seeing another child engaged in a behavior they themselves are struggling with is a great teachable moment. Point out tattling in another child if you see it happening and ask your child their thoughts on whether it’s a) tattling or telling and b) how the child could have handled it without tattling.
  • Encourage your child’s independence. Parents and caregivers can encourage their child’s problem-solving abilities by not jumping in quickly when things go awry. When siblings get into a (non-harmful) disagreement and one begins to tattle, consider instructing them to work it out instead of intervening. Have the tattler draw a picture of the incident and let them know you’ll talk about it with them later. Chances are, they won’t want to make that sort of effort and will sort the conflict out on their own instead. Parents can always let children know that they are being heard, but that right now is a good time for them to work things out on their own.

A lot of times children who are prone to tattling often have a strong sense of internal justice. Try to remember that their tattling isn’t necessarily always a bad thing and help your child understand that they can’t control the way other children behave and instead should focus on keeping their own actions kind and fair to all. For more information on childhood tattling and how to curb it, visit www.verywellfamily.com or www.childmind.org.


By ABC Quality Team on August 23, 2022