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"Mom, Stella pushed me!" my daughter Rosie, 6, reports. A few minutes later, Rosie's back: "Stella won't play with me!", "Stella's jumping on the bed!", "Stella won't stop looking at me!" The constant finger-pointing and accompanying whining are enough to make any parent scream. "At this age, children begin asserting themselves by experimenting with power and control in relationships," says Toni Schutta, a psychologist in St. Paul. "Tattling is a way for kids to see if they can dominate. Can I get a rise out of Mom or Dad? Can I get my sister in trouble? Will I look like the angel in comparison? Can I push people's buttons?"
To fix the problem in your house, start by having a conversation with your child about the difference between tattling and telling. Explain that tattling is when you're trying to get someone in trouble, while telling is informing an adult when someone could get hurt or something might get broken. Since it's also helpful to figure out what's motivating your little informer, experts offer insights on four of the most common types of tattles -- and how to handle them.
"Max won't give me a turn."
What he means "I need help solving a problem."
When children have a disagreement they can't work out, they often turn to tattling as a way to get an adult involved. If that's the case, call over both kids and problem-solve together, without taking sides or getting into the details of who did what first, Schutta advises. Say something like, "Hmmm, you both want to play a game on the computer. What solutions do you have?" The kids may suggest setting a timer and taking turns, finding a game that two people can play, or letting one kid use the iPad or Kindle while the other goes on the laptop. "Chances are, they're going to come up with some good ideas, and they won't have trouble picking one if you involve them in the process," Schutta says. "Do this enough, and they'll eventually start solving problems on their own."
"Lucy is throwing snowballs."
What she means "I'm very proud of myself for following all my parents' rules."
A child who is constantly pointing out the bad behavior of other children at playdates or school may simply be seeking attention and praise for her own actions, says Carl Chenkin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Wilmington, Delaware. If your child seems upset about her classmate's or sibling's rule-breaking, help her express her feelings by asking how it made her feel and giving her the words she needs: "Does it frustrate you when she throws snowballs and you know that you're not supposed to be doing that?" Then focus her back on her own behavior by saying something like, "I'm sure Lucy's mom will talk to her about her behavior, and I'm pleased that you followed the rules. But I'm more interested in what you're playing. Can you show me how you make a snow angel?"
"Jack said a bad word!"
What he means "I want to get my brother in trouble."
You may be tempted to call over the offender and take action immediately. Don't. That's exactly what the tattler wants you to do, and it will just encourage his behavior, says Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of "Mom, Jason's Breathing on Me!" Instead, offer a disinterested response such as, "I will worry about your brother. That's not your job," and refuse to talk about it further. "This approach takes the power out of tattling," Dr. Wolf says. If the conduct was particularly egregious, have a discussion with the troublemaker when the tattler is out of earshot. It's not a good idea to punish based on hearsay, but make sure he knows what the consequences will be if he does it again and you catch him in the act.
"They won't play with me."
What she means "I don't know how to make friends."
This common complaint often means your kid isn't sure how to join a group of children who are already playing together, says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. "Either she wants the other kids to play what she's playing, or she's expecting them to say, 'Oh Sarah, can you play too? We want you in our game.'?" Dr. Kennedy-Moore recommends taking the time to teach your child two simple steps for joining a group activity: Observe and then blend. Ask her, "What are the kids doing? How can you join the game without interrupting it?" If the kids are going down the slide, for example, tell her to get in line behind them instead of asking them to come over and play her game. If they're playing with a pretend kitchen, she could suggest ingredients or compliment the chef.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.