It can be quite a shock when you first hear your child swear. You might be wondering where your child learned that kind of language – and whether he really understands what he’s saying. How you react to your child’s swearing now will influence his future swearing behaviour.

Swearing: Why children do it

Young children often swear because they’re exploring language. They might be testing a new word, perhaps to understand its meaning. Sometimes swearing happens accidentally when children are learning to say words.

Children might also be trying to express a feeling like frustration. Or they might simply be saying the word because it sounds funny or gets a reaction.

Children might also be imitating others when they swear.

What to do about swearing: Immediate action

The most effective way to deal with your child’s swearing is to ignore the swearing completely. No talking, no eye contact. If the behaviour is attention seeking, this is often the best way to stop it.

Your reaction will influence whether your child swears again. Staying calm is the key. This will go a long way towards preventing further swearing.

If your child continues to swear, or you feel it’s a good opportunity to teach him about swearing, try talking with him about his choice of words. For example, you could say, ‘We don’t use words that upset people’. Pre-schoolers might not fully understand the words they use, but they can understand that swear words can hurt or offend others.

If the swearing has happened because your child is trying to say a new word – so ‘sit’ and ‘truck’ come out sounding more like swear words – it’s a good idea to gently correct your child’s pronunciation.

Should you explain what the word means?

Generally, toddlers and pre-schoolers don’t need explanations of swear words. They’re too young to understand some of the concepts behind the more common swear words. It’s enough just to say, ‘That’s not a nice word’.

Children over the age of four years can get some good out of a simple explanation. If you think your child might have some understanding of the meaning of the word, you can ask him what he thinks the word means. Then use general terms to explain why it’s not alright. For example, you could say, ‘That’s a word for poop, and it’s not nice to use’.

What to do about swearing: Longer term

It’s a good idea for the adults in your home to discuss and agree on acceptable language, and discuss this with your child. For example, in some families, expressions like ‘Oh my god’ are alright, but other words aren’t.

If your family has rules about swearing, it’ll be easier to point out when your child is using unacceptable language. For example, you might say, ‘Please use a nicer word’, or ‘We don’t use words like that’.

It’s also 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.

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

  • 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.

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

  • Be aware of what your child watches, listens to and plays with. That means supervising and checking the ratings on television, movies and other multimedia and music. It’s also a good idea to have the television and computers and other devices in a part of the house where you can easily see them.

Pre-schoolers (and some toddlers) can be intrigued by private body parts and bodily functions. They might start to use words like ‘bum head’, ‘poop face’ and ‘farty’. Although some of these words might not be alright in your home, it’s probably just a phase. Ignoring the words or explaining that they can’t be used will help.

Tackling swearing by dealing with the cause

If you know why your child is swearing, it can help you decide on an appropriate response.

Swearing for attention

If your child is swearing because it gets your attention or a good reaction from you, it’s best to make sure you don’t react at all. Avoid laughing or getting angry. Stay calm and ignore the word. Give attention and praise when your child uses polite language.

Swearing out of anger and frustration

If the swearing is because of anger or frustration, you can help your child name those emotions – for example, ‘I can see you’re really angry/frustrated’. It’s also important for your child to know that it’s normal and alright to feel these emotions. However, it’s better for your child to express his feelings using more appropriate words.

With anger, it might be important for your child to get away from what’s making him angry. For example, if your child is angry with a playmate, tell him to walk away or ask an adult for help with the situation.

With frustration, you can talk your child through steps for sorting out problems for himself. For example, if he has lost a toy, suggest he looks in the last place he was playing, then in his bedroom, and so on.

In both of these situations, you can teach your child other ways to deal with anger and frustration. This could include counting to 10, taking deep breaths, or talking about difficult feelings.

You can also encourage your child to use alternative 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.

Where did my child hear that word?

Children often like to try out words they hear or make up. And these are just as likely to be swear words as others. Children pick up swear words from many sources, outside and inside the home.

Not all children learn swear words from their parents. Exposure to swear words on television can lead to an increase in swearing in children. As children get older, their friends and peers will influence their choice of words too.

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

Explore more