How do you deal with a primary-school age child (range 5-7) who enjoys getting others into trouble? Is actually alert for minor wrongdoings and likes to set other people against each other? Can be other children, siblings, and even adults.

It's a distressing to observe because

  1. it's despised by society in general - English has many derogatory words for this such as "snitch", "sneak", "stirrer", "troublemaker"
  2. and because you fear it's indicative of low self-esteem, as in the child needing to feel big and important through this mechanism.

Any advice?

  • 1
    Primary school covers a large age range, and I think the answers will vary depending. How old is your child? Apr 6, 2011 at 0:46
  • @Jeffrey age range 5-7
    – hawbsl
    Apr 6, 2011 at 12:09

5 Answers 5


Ouch! Tough scenario.

You're right that it's indicative of low self-esteem, or at least a desire for asserting control and power. I know that some schools have done very well with bullies by simply giving them responsibility, if they are in charge of taking care of the school pet or a similar small responsibility, their motives are directed towards the collective and they become a much more productive member, and grades have even improved.

I strongly recommend a thorough talk with the child at every instance they show this behavior, asking them:

  • Why are you doing this?
  • Do YOU think it's wrong that "whoever it was" did that?
  • Are you mad at "whoever it was" ?
  • Do you know this hurts people? Do you want to hurt them?

It's very important to take a moment to really listen to what the child has to say about it. Part of the "snitch" appeal is shaming the other person, so if you increase self-awareness and make the child realize that being malicious in the form of snitching is considered bad too, you may get through to them. That in combination with giving them some more responsibility will hopefully steer them clear of this bad habit!

Good luck!

EDIT: a child who is 5-7 really doesnt think about their actions that much, most dont have much self-reflection because they are just learning to be social. Asking them self-reflecting questions asks them to form opinions about themselves in a way they might not have otherwise, which can improve their behaviour if guided positively.

  • +1 for the questions to the child! Find out what the motivation is, and address that. Apr 7, 2011 at 7:07
  • I disagree. Deal with the behavior .. the motivations will sort themselves out. You can help with that, but it isn't the prime concern.
    – tomjedrz
    Aug 12, 2011 at 17:18
  • As an aside ... rewarding bullies by giving them responsibilities seems counter-productive. I suspect it masks the problem by giving the bullying an official imprimatur.
    – tomjedrz
    Aug 12, 2011 at 17:20

Often times a child that is behaving in this way is really only wanting attention themselves-to be noticed for something is better than being totally overlooked. Giving them a special job is a great idea. Maybe he/she can help monitor the halls or do something to help keep others safe. This child seems to be very aware of what others are doing so reinforcing the positive side of that quality may help the child use that power in a more positive, less annoying way. Perhaps give them a way to vent all of this things they have noticed- like a notebook where the child could write and you could read. That way you may get more insight into what the child sees or is experiencing. Perhaps work with the other children surrounding this child and see if the child is included in daily experiences. Maybe the child is feeling left out and just wants a way to associate in some way. This may be a good learning/teaching opportunity for all involved. Maybe the child truly is malicious and enjoys seeing other people get in trouble, but maybe there is something else behind this behavior that should be the focus of your attention. Encourage, encourage, encourage the positive and the child will come around.


You are raising a fink.

My daughter was a fink. She loved (and still loves) to get herself involved in the business of others. I don't really get it myself.

Once she involved herself in a situation, we treated her as if she was involved in the situation. So if her cousins were throwing rocks, and she ran to us and tattled, we punished the whole lot (including her) for throwing rocks. She soon learned to mind her own business, at least around Mom and Dad.

School was trickier, because the buffoons in authority at schools reward finks. In that situation, when she talked to us about others treating her badly, we discussed the history between her and them. If she had finked, then we made sure she was clear that people don't like finks, and treat them badly. She is bright, so she started getting it, and started controlling her "finkish" impulses.

  • +1 for the idea of punishing the fink too, when finking is what you want to stop. Aug 12, 2011 at 22:22

Maybe the child feels strongly that everybody should behave "correctly" AND believes that the best way to make everybody behave correctly is to involve the authorities.

This is different from enjoying getting people into trouble.

If the child is strongly law-abiding, consider discussing with them that other priorities can be more important.


Try showing the same attitude towards him, if it's gone too far. Follow it up with explanation that this is what others feel when he does such things to them.

  • 3
    Demonstrating a behavior reinforces it.
    – HedgeMage
    Apr 6, 2011 at 15:29
  • @HedgeMage: would it be ok to say "What would you think if I [or others] would treat you like that? Would you find that ok? Would you like that?" - or is this already too close to a demonstration of the bad behavior?
    – BBM
    Jul 30, 2011 at 7:05
  • 1
    @BBM Certainly asking the child how he/she would feel in teh other's place is valid (if the child is old enough to have developed empathy -- the understanding that others have feelings and can be helped/hurt/etc by one's actions) -- that's very different than doing the thing you are asking the child to learn is wrong.
    – HedgeMage
    Aug 1, 2011 at 16:43
  • In practice, how would this even work? The problem behavior is tattling to an authority figure. In order to reflect the same behavior back, the parent would have to tattle to... themselves? The kid tattles because they don't have any authority - an authority figure has no one to tattle to; they're the one meting out punishment already. Feb 8, 2019 at 15:05

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