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Swearing - when children swear

swear; curse; behaviour; child; bad; language; swearing; cussing ;

Many parents have times when they are worried by or cross about their children swearing.

There are many different reasons why children use language that their parents do not approve of, and often there are differences of opinion between parents about what they think is a problem and what is not. Before dealing with your child's swearing behaviour both parents need to talk about their own values about swearing.


Parents' values

  • Before dealing with your child's swearing behaviour both parents need to talk about their own values about swearing, what they think is OK and what they think is not OK.
  • In some families one parent swears and the other does not, or one parent disapproves of swearing while the other does not - this gives mixed messages to the children.
  • Some families think it is OK for adults to swear but not for children - and this too gives mixed messages to the children.
  • Families have different words that they disapprove of - some families do not mind any words except sexual type swearing. Many people consider swearing about their religion or God is offensive.

Why young children swear

Babies, toddlers and children learn the words they use from the people around them, especially parents, and they also learn the feelings about words from these people. You teach them the feelings about words by how you look and act when you say them, and how you look and act when your children say them.

So if parents always say a particular word when they are angry, their toddler is likely to say the same word when angry, without any knowledge of what it might mean.

If you laugh or even try to hide a smile when your toddler first says a "naughty" word she is likely to pick up your feelings and say it again, as young children want to please their parents more than anything else.

On the other hand if you react with anger when your toddler says a swear word she may use it again when she is upset with you in some way and wants you to know about it.

Young children enjoy using words and learning new ones and playing with words that they feel are exciting or secret or special. Three and four year olds may have great fun calling someone else a 'toilet' or a 'bottom' because they have learned that there is something interesting about the words.

What you can do for young children

  • The first thing is for parents to decide what words they don't want their children to say and to avoid saying them themselves.
  • Then if children pick up a swear word from someone else, to try to be matter of fact and not encourage the child to think it is either funny or especially interesting. You might say firmly something like: "We don't use that word and I don't want to hear it again" and then ignore it and do not respond if the child tries it out on you again.
  • If children are having fun with a word you could offer an alternative suggestion. For example if they are calling out a word you don't like, you could make up a fun word and suggest they try that instead. It can be anything you like, eg "I know a better word than that, what about saying "hoop -de-doodle", "snuggle, wuggle" or any other interesting sounding word you can think up.
  • If your children say a swear word when they are angry or distressed it is probably most helpful to show them how to say what they really mean, eg "I can see you feel really cross/upset/ disappointed..." rather than make a big fuss about the word.

Older children swearing

For older children, who understand that they should not do it, swearing is the same as any other kind of misbehaviour. It is something children do because they are upset or unhappy, because they haven't realised that it is a word they should not use, or because they feel that they need to do it to impress their friends or peer group. Sometimes children swear because it is part of the language of their school yard and they don't realise it is not OK unless someone explains to them why they should not do it.

Teaching time

  • If you think that your child does not know the meaning of the words he is using, you could explain what they mean and how they may affect other people, especially if the words are racist or sexist or hurtful to people with disabilities.
  • You could explain that using any words that hurt other people's feelings is not good, and won't help people to like him even if they laugh at the time.
  • Swearing is not a sign of being smart, it is more likely to be a sign that the person doesn't know a better word to use.
  • You could together think up some words to use in the situations where he might be tempted to swear, eg words (even made up words) to express anger or frustration. You might even be able to make up a game of thinking of clever words to use.

Sexual words

  • For sexual words you could give a short explanation. For example say something like "That word means to have sexual intercourse. Some people think it is clever to use it as a swear word because they may not know that sex is a natural part of life and not 'dirty' or secret or unpleasant."
  • Talk about what words are OK to use to express feelings and what are not OK.
  • Make sure that your child feels able to talk to you about sex as a natural part of life.

For older children

For older children, as for adults, swearing is often a sign of anger, rather than just wanting to make an impact on others. If this is so, it is important to try to find the cause of the anger and help the child deal with this.

If your child continues to swear a lot and it is not because adults in the family swear, you may need to talk with her about why she does it. Make sure that you time this talking about it when you are both feeling relaxed, not in the heat of the moment when it sounds like a criticism. If it is about being part of the peer group you could talk about whether this is the real reason why children like each other or why she likes other children; and do lots of listening to her feelings as well.

If this does not help and you cannot find any underlying problem or stress you might say that if she is unable to be boss of her language you will have to help her; so that she will not be able to go out the next time she wants to, in case the swear words creep out. If you use a consequence like this you need to make it short and give children another chance to try again very soon.

Always remember to help your child deal with any underlying stresses or worries.

More to read

Raising Children Network   - Raising Children website is produced with the help of an extensive network including the Australian Government.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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