Nobody likes a tattletale. But nobody likes a bully either. So parents are forced to walk a tightrope between keeping their kid from being a playground snitch and keeping their kid from silently enduring the torture of a neighborhood brute. Teaching a child the difference between tattling and reporting bullying requires a nuanced parental position. But helping a kid determine the best course of action in the face of adversity is less a didactic process than an interactive one.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Bullying
To start with, parents need to understand why a child is bringing an issue to them in the first place, according to Dr. Roseanne Lesack, director of the child psychology clinic at Nova Southeastern University. “Why is tattling happening?” she asks, before offering the two most likely scenarios. “It’s because they need your help to fix the problem or they need your attention.”
How to Teach a Kid to Report Bullying While Not Being a Tattletale
- Offer empathy when a child comes to you with a problem with another child. Let them know they are heard
- Ask if the child has already attempted to solve the problem.
- If the child hasn’t tried to solve the problem on their own, discuss solutions.
- If the child has tried to solve the problem and it sounds as if they are being bullied or intimidated, it’s time to intervene.
Of course, the “need” for parental help is relative. Often what the child is actually looking for is a fixer — someone who can come in with the authority of the adult to resolve a problem their reticent to take on by themselves. In this way, parents are being used as a big scary tool to frighten peers into submission. That’s really the essence of the typical tattle.
“The only way they can stop tattling is if you teach them the skills they need to solve the problem themselves,” Lesack explains. And for parents, that means engaging in a conversation when a problem with another child is first brought to their attention. It does not mean labeling the child a tattle tale and dismissing them out of hand.
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“My first response if sincere interest,” Lesack says, suggesting parents accept the complaint with a note of true empathy by acknowledging the circumstance sounds hard or difficult. The dialogue then progresses from that empathetic foundation. “The first thing I always will ask a child is, ‘What did you do about that?’ And that’s really taking a solutions-based approach.”
If a kid says they didn’t try anything to solve the problem, parents have an opening to coach their kid on ways that the issue might be resolved. From there it’s a matter of getting the child back into the scrum to see if a solution can be found. Eventually, Lesack explains, the kid will know that coming to their parent without first using some problem-solving skills will likely not lead to an adult-centered solution to their problem.
Addressing the child grievance with pure acceptance from the outset also helps when tattling is a tool for receiving attention. “It’s going to let them know I’m actually listening to what they’re saying,” Lesack says. “And I’m actually going to believe when they come to me with something heavy or serious.”
Having a conversation with their kid also helps a parent understand if the issue is worthy of their intervention. If the child has, indeed, tried to find solutions only to be rebuffed or retaliated against, there could be a deeper issue related to bullying. And that when it’s time to step in and act as moderator.
“If it’s a bullying scenario, then your children are going to know that you’re really going to be there if they have a problem. Because we’re solutions focused,” Lesack says.
“Listen to your child, but don’t over-dramatize it,” she explains. “It’s a hard balance to strike.”