How to Tame Your Tattletale
Is your little one a tattletale? Here's how to turn that behavior into an opportunity to teach conflict resolutions skills.
"Audrey took my ball!"
"James won't let me use the crayons!"
"Sarah stuck her tongue out at me!"
You've been hearing more and more of this kind of thing lately, and you're starting to wonder -- is your little angel a tattletale? While annoying, this behavior is pretty normal. Plenty of 4- and 5-year-olds just love to tell on their siblings and friends.
In fact, according to Dr. Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, a clinical child psychologist, "Tattling often begins during the preschool years, once children are peer-oriented and comfortable expressing themselves in words, but still lack the social skills to solve conflicts independently." Tattling proves that your child can distinguish between right and wrong, but it's not always appropriate. Kids tend to tattle for the wrong reasons, such as a desire for adult attention or to get others in trouble.
Learn how to break bad habits with these five ways to tame tattling, and how use it as an opportunity to help your child learn how to resolve conflicts on his own.
1) Assess the Situation
Before you decide that your child has turned into a full-fledged tattletale, take stock of the situation. Be sure to help your child understand when telling (rather than tattling) is important. "Telling can be distinguished from tattling, which implies a child is unnecessarily bringing minor grievances to an adult's attention, often with the intent to get another child in trouble," says Dr. Cohen. You don't want your little one constantly complaining to you, but he should feel safe coming to you when he needs a little assistance in solving a problem or social conflict, when he feels worried or if he has a concern about safety.
2) Nip It in the Bud
If your child is coming to you for every little problem with his peers, it's important to stop the behavior before it escalates. "Patterns are formed if an adult continually steps in and mediates a situation," says behavior expert Janet Lehman, co-creator of the Total Transformation Program and expert at Empowering Parents. That means your child will keep tattling and tattling -- and won't learn the skills to deal with situations on his own. Once you notice a tattling pattern, form a plan to correct the behavior before it becomes a habit.
3) Teach Conflict Resolution Skills
Instead of stepping in for your child and taking care of the situation for him, encourage your little one to problem-solve and resolve the situation independently. At first, you'll need to coach him a little. "Say something like, 'I understand that you want that toy first. How can you decide to take turns and be fair with your friend? Good plan -- tell Timmy he has five more minutes and you will have your turn,'" advises Lehman. The next time he comes to you with a complaint, encourage him to think of a strategy to try to solve it. Remember, the goal is to coach him into a new habit of trying strategies first and coming to you only when the strategies don't work. Of course, this process takes time, but in the long run it will teach him to be far more independent.
4) Think About Underlying Motives
Children don't always tattle because they lack social skills. Some children display this behavior when they're dealing with unpleasant emotions, such as feeling left out or overlooked. Take a moment to reflect on the issue and share your observations with your child in order to open up a dialogue, Dr. Cohen advises. For example, you could say, "I noticed you've been complaining about your brother a lot lately. I wonder if you've been feeling left out since we've been spending so much time talking about his school play." Talk to your child about those emotions and come up with a plan to help him feel better, like spending time talking about his day.
5) Ask Others for Help
It's important to maintain consistency among your child's caregivers if you're going to change his behavior. Share your concerns and plans to turn the behavior around with all your child's teachers and babysitters and ask for frequent updates on his progress, advises Lehman.
Rebecca Desfosse is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and family topics.