Mother sitting on the couch with daughter fixing her hair
Mother sitting on the couch with daughter fixing her hair

My child is swearing. What should I do?

Swearing is something that most children will be exposed to at some point, whether it is at school, spending time with family and friends or when out in public spaces.

Need to know

Swearing is something that most children will be exposed to at some point, whether it is at school, spending time with family and friends or when out in public spaces. You can’t control what happens outside of the home but you can decide what is acceptable behaviour for your family.

Younger children swear simply because they learn by mirroring other people’s behaviour and usually don’t know the meaning of the words they are using. Depending on how adults and other children respond, young kids could continue to use offensive language as a means to get the same attention.

School-aged children sometimes use bad language as a social tool to help them fit in, or to stand out, in friendship groups. When directed at an adult, bad language is a way to express negative feelings and an indication that a child lacks problem-solving skills.

Why it’s important

You might decide that in a certain context swearing is ok, or that only certain bad words are acceptable. Whatever you decide to do, consider your child’s age, the intent behind the swearing and whether they can identify those situations where using profanities is inappropriate. Stubbing one’s toe at home might call for an expletive, but using bad language in front of a teacher might get a child into a lot of trouble. 

Sometimes the regular use of swearing can underlie impulsivity and emotional regulation issues. If you notice bad language alongside other challenging behaviour, it is best to see a health professional to determine what else is at play.

Tips and strategies

Identify the reason for the swearing. If your child is swearing simply because they have heard a new word, your best course of action is to be calm and simply ignore it. Paying too much attention to this behaviour may actually teach your child that swearing is a good way to prompt a response from you. 

Give older kids options. It’s important that older kids understand the implications associated with using bad language in different situations. Find out what they are feeling and talk to them about appropriate alternatives for expressing anger, frustration or pain. You can use this moment as a coaching opportunity to teach your child more appropriate ways to handle emotions.

Discuss and agree on language that’s acceptable. Family rules are a good way to set boundaries around how everyone is expected to behave. This is also a good way to ensure that adults model the behaviour they want to see in their children. Breaking rules should have appropriate consequences so be sure to enforce it for everyone.

Use praise. Positive reinforcement is incredibly powerful in behaviour management so don’t forget to praise your child when they use appropriate language and behaviour. Be clear and explicit about what they did right, for example “I’m really glad and very proud that you told me you were angry without using rude words. How can we make things better?”

References

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