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Swearing: why do children do it?

When school-age children and pre-teens swear, it’s usually to express negative feelings. It’s often a response to something painful, upsetting or frustrating.

Children might also swear to fit in socially. They might be trying to be part of the group, or to stand out by being funny or adding shock value to their talk. Children might also be imitating others when they swear.

Some children swear because it gets a strong reaction from their parents.

When children swear: What to do

If you know why your child is swearing, it can help you to decide on the best way to respond. It’s usually a good idea to speak with school-age children and pre-teens about their choice of words. They might or might not fully understand a swear word’s meaning. But they do understand that words can hurt or offend others.

Swearing to get a reaction

Your reaction will influence whether your child swears again. For example, if you laugh or react strongly, your child might enjoy the attention and be more likely to do it again. Stay calm and explain clearly that the word your child used is not okay. You could also explain that the word might hurt other people’s feelings. This will go a long way towards preventing future swearing.​

Swearing to fit in socially

If you think your child is swearing to fit in socially, try talking with your child about why they think their friends swear. You could talk about other ways your child can feel accepted. For example, there might be another ‘cool’ expression your child could use.

As children get older, it’s good to remind them that they can use different language with different groups of people – but that some words are never acceptable. It might not be realistic to expect your older child not to swear around their friends, but you might be able to help them understand which words are less offensive.

Swearing out of anger and frustration

If the swearing is because of anger or frustration, you can help your child name their emotions – for example, ‘I can see you’re really angry’. It’s important for your child to know that it’s okay to feel these emotions, but it’s better to express them in more appropriate words.

You might need to help your child calm down from strong emotions like anger or frustration. Then you can teach your child other ways of managing strong feelings like counting to 10, taking deep breaths or talking about difficult feelings.

You can also encourage your child to use other words that aren’t offensive. For example, you could suggest ‘flip’ or ‘shivers’ or even funny words that you and your child make up together.

School-age children can get some good from simple explanations of what swear words mean. If you think your child is ready for this, you can ask your child what they think the word means. Then you can explain why it’s not okay. For example, ‘That’s a word for poo. We don’t use that word in our family’. Or you could explain that the word is racist, sexist or disrespectful of particular groups of people.

Discouraging swearing and encouraging respectful language

If you want to discourage swearing in the longer term, it’s a good idea for the adults in your family to discuss and agree on acceptable language, and discuss this with your child. You can’t stop people swearing around your child when you’re out and about, but you can help your child to learn what’s acceptable in your family. For example, in some families, expressions like ‘Oh my god’ are okay, but other words aren’t.

If you have family rules about respectful language, it’ll be easier to point out when your child is using unacceptable language. For example, you might say, ‘Please use a more respectful word’, or ‘Remember, that’s not a word we use in our home’.

And it’s less confusing for children if the rules about swearing apply to adults as well as children. If you want your children to avoid swearing, you and the other adults in your home need to avoid it too.

If you’re co-parenting and you and your ex-spouse can’t agree on rules about swearing, just tell your child that you have different rules and say which words aren’t okay in your home. Children can learn quite quickly when and where it’s acceptable to swear.

Here are more ideas to encourage respectful speaking and reduce swearing in your family:

  • Explain to your child that some words that are acceptable at home might not be acceptable at school (or church or other children’s homes). Different places have different rules.

  • Think of other words to use if you find it hard to stop swearing, and other ways to handle difficult situations. For example, instead of swearing, you could say something like, ‘I feel really frustrated or angry’. This way you’re modelling better ways of expressing feelings. If your child has heard you swearing, it can also help to explain why you were swearing.

  • Praise your child when you notice them dealing more appropriately with anger or frustration. For example, if your child tells you that a friend was using swear words to tease them, praise your child for walking away from the situation and not using those words themselves.

  • Be aware of what your child watches, listens to and plays with. Monitor what your child is seeing on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, and check the ratings for TV shows, movies, games and apps. It’s also a good idea to have TVs, computers and other devices in areas where you can easily see them.

Your child will hear words in public that you’ve said are unacceptable. It’s good to be prepared for this situation. If your child asks you why somebody is using a swear word, you could talk about how people in different families have different rules.

When children push the boundaries with swearing

Some children will keep pushing swearing boundaries after being told not to. If you find yourself in this situation, you could try the following strategies:

  • Clearly state the rules. For example, you could say, ‘We use respectful language in this family’.

  • Clearly state that you won’t tolerate any abusive behaviour or language that’s directed towards others. School-age children can understand about hurting other people’s feelings.

  • Clearly state that you won’t tolerate any abusive behaviour or language that’s directed towards others. School-age children can understand about hurting other people’s feelings.

  • Clearly state that you won’t tolerate any abusive behaviour or language that’s directed towards others. School-age children can understand about hurting other people’s feelings.

  • Tell your child what the consequences will be if you hear swear words – for example, quiet time or time-out or loss of privileges like TV time, pocket money and so on.

  • Praise your child for not swearing in situations where they normally would. Or if your child has gone a long time without swearing, tell them how proud you are that they’ve used manners and respectful language.

If swearing is one of several inappropriate behaviours that your child shows, you might consider seeking help from a child health professional like a psychologist or school counsellor. Your child's school or your General Practitioner might be able to recommend someone in your area,​

Where did my child hear that word?

Children pick up swear words from many sources, outside and inside the home and through the media. Not all children learn swearing from their parents.

Friends and peers will also influence your child. Children will pick up new words as their social circle expands to include playmates, school friends and older children.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission