Ask a Therapist: I Think I’ve Made My Child a Tattletale

How to empower children to utilize age-appropriate problem solving skills

Christina Furnival, MA, LPCC

I want to support my child to set boundaries with others and to come to me for help when needed in moments of conflict with friends or siblings, but I think I’ve created a “tattletale.” What can I do?

– Referee of Tiny People

Dear Referee,

First of all, I want to applaud your efforts to raise a child who is skilled in boundary-setting! What a gift you are giving them by teaching them how to listen to their gut and assert their needs. Open communication with your child is unfortunately a rare blessing these days. When parents are caught in the hustle and bustle of life, they can unknowingly shut down children from sharing important information, so I admire that you have created an environment where your child feels safe to come to you.

Okay, now let’s dig in.

A tattletale is the idea of somebody who “tattles” or reports another’s wrongdoings— often in an attempt to get the other person in trouble. Ideally, we want our children to tell us when someone is in danger, when another person is being intentionally mean, or when something important is happening that needs an adult’s attention. But if they are bringing something to our attention that is of low consequence or is part of an attempt to get someone in trouble, that’s when their action falls more along the line of tattling.

That said—and stick with me here—we actually want our children to tattle—at least at first, until they mature and understand the nuance of tattling versus telling.

Young children lack the sophisticated neural pathways to appropriately manage conflict while considering the wants and needs of others. They experience their problems as very big and are often quite literal when it comes to rules. When an “unfair” situation arises or someone breaks a rule, an alarm bell goes off in a child’s head, and the problem can instantly become personal. Most children are at a loss for what to do in these situations, so they turn to an adult to help them solve the problem in front of them—and that’s where tattling can arise.

We have to remember that children are only just beginning to learn how to trust their gut about what feels good, right, or fair to them and what doesn’t—including how to speak up about it. This means that they need us adults to help them solve problems until they are able to do so themselves.

Your children know they can trust you, that their voice matters with you, and they would like your help navigating the situation, so they come to you. A lot.

So if we think about tattling from an age-appropriate standpoint, children are doing exactly what we want them to. It’s our job to guide and coach them through their problems—even the ones we might find irritating or small. Over time, children will have a better understanding of which behaviors warrant coming to us for help and which ones they can handle themselves (and even which they can leave alone entirely!).

The following approach to tattling will help decrease it over time while empowering your child to feel capable of age-appropriate problem-solving:

1. Empathize with your child

Remember, your child’s emotion regulation skills are not as fine-tuned as yours, which means they can see problems as big deals when we likely would not. But just because we don’t view a situation with the same gravity does not mean that our child’s feelings are unjustified. By empathizing with our child, we express that what they feel matters. At the same time, it helps them become regulated again. Only from a calm brain can they then participate in the next two steps.

2. Walk through the situation with them

Use open-ended questions so you can grasp what the problem is, help your child gain perspective, understand what the other person might be feeling or thinking, and identify possible solutions.

3. Empower your child to deploy one of the solutions

You will know if you need to step in, and in that case, do just that! But if you don’t need to, encourage your child to try one of the solutions you came up with together. Empower them to take ownership over any situations that you think they will be able to handle successfully. Support them in setting a boundary and upholding it if it is crossed. Later, you can reflect together if the solution worked or what might work better in a similar situation in the future.

By utilizing this approach from tattling to autonomous problem-solving, your child will become better skilled at identifying the situations they need to come to you for and those that they can confidently handle on their own. And you will find some peace while beaming with pride at your child’s new abilities.

- Christina Furnival, MS, LPCC

Want more from Christina? Preorder her new book Fear Not: How to Face Your Fear and Anxiety Head On, an empowering and uplifting rhyming story to teach children a practical three-step lesson to manage their worries, regain their cool, and strip fear of its power once and for all.
Discover the Capable Kiddos Book Series
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Christina Furnival, a licensed mental health therapist and mom, answers these questions in this empowering and uplifting rhyming story about a young boy who successfully faces his anxiety and fear head-on. In Fear Not!, children will learn a practical three-step lesson to manage their worries, regain their cool, and strip fear of its power once and for all.

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Christina Furnival, a licensed mental health therapist and mom, helps answer these questions in this charming and engaging rhyming story about a young child who successfully navigates the complexities of an unkind peer relationship.

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Meet the Expert:
Christina Furnival, MS, LPCC, is a wife, mother of two, writer, author, and licensed mental health therapist. With over a decade of experience in the field, she is passionate about helping parents and children grow their skill sets, overcome challenges, and gain confidence to live happy, fulfilling lives.

Her meaningful stories in the Capable Kiddos series serve as entertaining and enlightening resources to empower children and to make them feel capable of managing tough situations and their accompanying emotions.

Learn more about their educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.

Topic: Children & Adolescents

Tags: Advice | Children | How To | Strategies | Success | Tools | Wisdom

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