How to respond to tattling

Tattling can be one of the most annoying behaviors that our children exhibit.  It can also be a great opportunity to teach our children about things like discernment, wisdom, and assertiveness to help develop more emotional intelligence. For young children, tattling is a form of communication that helps them to process their world.  We can provide them with tools that they eventually will access on their own to problem solve.


Young children are concrete thinkers. Everything in their world is black or white, right or wrong. They are very aware of rules, and for them the rules can represent comfortable boundaries and safety.  Because they are concrete thinkers, often all rules have the level of importance.  Therefore, they haven’t developed the skill set to determine the difference between tattling because their brother is playing with matches or their brother is eating a snack in the family room. While we have the ability to see that one instance is a safety issue and requires our immediate intervention and the other is an annoyance.  In their minds, both of these situations carry the same weight – that a rule has been broken.


As teachers here at TPK, we deal with tattling every day, many times a day. We are constantly learning new ways to help children use their assertive voices to better handle their problems independently.  We are giving them scripts that they can practice using when they need help managing situations in the classroom and on the playground.  This encourages everyone involved in a conflict to develop new skills to better navigate relationships.


In her book Conscious Discipline, Dr. Becky Bailey teaches that there are 3 basic reasons that children tattle.  With each different type of tattling, children are conveying a different message and each type of tattling can be handled in a different way.  The three types of tattling are Intrusion tattling, Revenge tattling and Safety tattling.


Intrusion tattling happens when children perceive that they are the victim.  Someone has harmed them in some way – taken a toy, physically hurt them, called them a name, etc.  The message your child is sending you is that they feel powerless.  You can give them words to regain their power.

  • Start by asking if they liked what happened. You will be able to tell their level of assertiveness from their strength of their answer.
  • If their “no” is assertive, you can tell your child “Go tell Jimmy ‘I did not like it when you pulled my hair, don’t do that again.’”
  • If their initial response is not assertive, you give them the same script only, you have them practice with you and go with them and reinforce the words. Over time their ability to speak for themselves will increase.


Revenge tattling can look like policing or a child attempting to get another child in trouble.  The message your child is trying to convey is that they are frustrated or angry with another child and they do not know how to express that appropriately.  You have the opportunity to teach your child how to be a helpful friend.

  • Start by asking your child if they are telling you to be helpful or hurtful. This helps the child to figure out their own motivation.
  • If they say helpful, ask how telling you is helpful and rephrase and repeat back what they say. If they say “Sally is not putting on her shoes.” You can say, “Oh, you wanted Sally to put on her shoes so that we can leave.” “You can help by telling Sally to put on her shoes.”
  • Follow up with. “You told her to put on her shoes; that was helpful.”
  • If your child’s response is that they were trying to be hurtful. You can ask them what they can do to be helpful and direct them through the previous bullet points.


Safety Tattling is when your child sees other children being hurtful or getting hurt.  This is the time when you really need your child to tell you what is going on, so how you respond is important so that they will continue to seek your help when there is danger involved.  Here at school, we are always telling the children that it is our job to keep the class safe and it is their job to help keep it safe.  Let your child know that it is your job to keep everyone safe and you will take care the situation and you can commend them for their concern for the other person’s safety.


Whatever the reasons behind why your child is tattling, it can feel tedious to us, but it is a normal, might I even say necessary, part of a child’s social/emotional growth.  How we respond to children during this developmental stage can give them valuable communication skills they will take well into the future.



“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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