Your Toddler Is a Tattletale: What Do You Do Now?

toddlers fighting

There you are, at the playground or on a play date, happily minding your own business when your toddler runs up to you with the following report: "Jimmy hit me." Toddler tattletales are a double-edged sword. Of course you want to know if your child is in trouble, but if he's dragging you into the middle of every fight every five minutes, that's not only annoying for you, but bad for your child, too, since he never learns to solve his own problems.


So how do you encourage toddlers to speak up when they really need your help without going overboard and reporting every single petty spat? Here are some rules to keep in mind:

  1. Never scold a toddler for tattling. If your toddler is coming to you for the umpteen time that hour, it can of course be tempting to blow him off. But don't do it, since they may not feel comfortable coming to a parent in a real emergency -- with those, you'll want to be involved.
  2. Keep in mind your toddler may not want you to intervene. First, don't jump to conclusions. "Sometimes toddlers may not be trying to tattle, but are actually just seeking your attention," points out Scott Carroll, MD, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. "You may just be really busy, and tattling is the only thing that gets you to focus on them." So to start, put down your iPhone and try mirroring what your toddler has said: "I see you've come to tell me that Max hit you." Sometimes, just making a toddler feel heard can be enough for him to return to his playmate on his own.
  3. Distinguish between big and small problems. Of course, if your toddler is truly being bullied, bit, or bludgeoned you'll want to step in. But if it's more subtle than that -- i.e., a tiff over sharing a toy -- you're better off steering clear. "I often say that we don't want to be involved in the 'he-said/she-said,'" explains Bette Alkazian, a parent and family coach at Balanced Parenting. As such, teach your kids to tell you when they feel in danger in any way, but when it's something non-safety related, try sending your child back to deal with this issue himself. The more he can problem-solve on his own, the better he'll be at negotiating all kinds of conflicts -- and the lower maintenance those play dates will be.

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  4. Coach him on what to say. Don't just send your toddler back to the fray on his own to flounder; give him the verbal tools to unlock social harmony. For instance: if your child walks up and says "Jimmy hit me," ask, "How do you think we should do to solve the problem?" From there, give him some helpful suggestions like "Go tell him you don't like being hit" or "go suggest that you two play something else."
  5. Teach your toddler to disengage. If your child tries to resolve the issue but his playmate isn't going along with it, there is one very simple yet powerful thing you can encourage your toddler to do: walk away. Tell your toddler it's fine for him to play with someone else, or by himself.
  6. Consider your toddler's age. Keep in mind that older kids can negotiate on their own better than younger ones, so don't expect master manipulators too soon. "When they are little, we need to give them the words we wish they would say for themselves," says Alkazian. That may mean stepping into the middle of the two kids and saying to the other child, "Tara is sad you're not sharing the doll. So let's take turns; you can play with the doll for a few more minutes, then please hand it to your friend." (And make sure to enforce that transaction if the toddler refuses.) But once they're older  -- around age 3 or 4 -- "Our job is simply to teach our values about kindness and respect, and give them the space to figure it out for themselves," says Alkazian.

How do you handle toddler tattling?


Image via Cresta Johnson/shutterstock

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