By Raising Children Network
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It can be quite a shock when your child starts to swear. You might be wondering where your child learned that kind of language. And whether she really understands what she’s saying. How you react to your school-age child’s swearing now will influence her future swearing behaviour.

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Results from our online swearing survey indicated that 99% of parents think that swearing is unacceptable.
  • The results also indicated that swearing occurs in 42% of children aged 1–3, and 69% of 4–7 year olds.

Why do school-age children swear?

Young children often swear because they’re exploring language. They might be testing a new word, perhaps to understand its meaning. When school-age children swear, it’s usually to vent some negative feelings. It’s 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.

What to do: immediate action

Speak to your child about his choice of words, rather than ignoring his behaviour . Your child might or might not fully understand a swear word’s meaning. But school-age children do understand that words can hurt or offend others.

Your reaction will influence whether your child swears again. Stay calm and explain clearly that the word your child used is not acceptable. This will go a long way towards preventing future swearing.

Should I explain what the word means?
School-age children can benefit from a simple explanation, depending on the individual child. If you think your child might have some understanding of the meaning of the word, you can ask her what she thinks the word means. Then use general terms to explain why it’s not appropriate. For example, you could say, ‘That is a word for private body parts. We don’t use it like that in our family’.

What to do: the longer term

  • It’s a good idea for the adults in your home to discuss and agree on acceptable language. For example, in some families, expressions such as ‘Oh my god’ are OK, but other words are not.
  • Discuss your family rules about acceptable language with your child. For example, you could say, ‘Please speak politely or don’t speak at all’, or ‘There are some words we don’t use in our home’.
  • You might also explain to your child that some words that are acceptable at home might not be acceptable at school (or other settings such as church or other children’s homes) – that different places have different rules.
  • If you find it difficult to stop swearing yourself, try to find alternative words to use or another way to deal with the situation. Adults often swear when they’re frustrated or angry. Instead of swearing, try to say something like, ‘I feel really frustrated or angry’. This way you are modelling better ways of expressing feelings.
  • Be aware of what your child watches, listens to and plays with. That means supervising TV, movies and other multimedia and music. It’s a good idea to have the computer and TV in a part of the house where you can easily see them. If you can’t always supervise, check the TV guide so you know what your child is watching. Also keep the remote control where it can’t be accessed by your child. This should reduce your child’s exposure to inappropriate language (and behaviour).
  • Praise your child when you notice him dealing more 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.
  • Your child will hear words out in public that you have said are unacceptable. It’s good to be prepared for this situation. If your child asks you why somebody is using a bad word, you could talk about how people in different families have different rules.
Children who hear swear words often can get used to them. This makes it more likely the children will use these words themselves.

Tackling swearing by dealing with the cause

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

  • If the swearing is because of anger, you can teach your child that such feelings are OK. But it’s better for your child to express her feelings using more appropriate words, or to get away from what is making her angry. For example, if your child is angry with a playmate, tell her to walk away or ask an adult for help with the situation.
  • If you think your child is swearing to fit in socially, discuss other ways he can gain acceptance from his friends. For example, think of another ‘cool’ expression he can use.
  • If the swearing is because of frustration, talk your child through the steps to sorting out problems for herself. For example, if she’s trying to tie her shoelaces, suggest she starts by crossing the laces under each other, then makes the bows, and so on.
  • Teach your child alternative ways to deal with anger and frustration. This could include counting to 10, taking deep breaths, or talking about angry feelings.
  • Encourage your child to use alternative words that are not offensive. For example, you could suggest, ‘flip’ or ‘shivers’ or even funny words that you and your child make up together.

When your child pushes the boundaries

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

  • Clearly state the rules. For example, say, ‘We use polite language in this family’.
  • Tell your child what the consequences will be if you hear swear words (for example, time out or loss of privileges such as TV time or pocket money and so on).
  • Praise your child for not swearing in situations where he normally would. Or if he has gone a long time without swearing, tell him how proud you are that he used manners and lots of polite language.
  • If your child’s swearing is abusive and directed at others, clearly state that you will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. School-age children should understand about hurting others’ feelings.
If swearing is one of several inappropriate behaviours that your child shows, you might consider seeking help from a child health professional such as a psychologist or school counsellor. Your child’s school or your GP 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. Almost half of parents in our RCN reader survey reported that they believe that their children learned to swear from the parents themselves. This isn’t too surprising – more than 40% of the parents surveyed said they swear every day.

Even 19% of parents who said they don’t swear themselves believe that their children learned to swear from parents. This suggests there are quite a few Australian families where one parent has more colourful language than the other.

But not all children learn from their parents. Research suggests that exposure to swear words on TV can lead to an increase in swearing in children. 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.

Other facts about swearing

Studies on brain damage affecting the language areas of the brain have found that some people who have lost the ability to speak, or struggle to form words, can still swear easily. This is thought to be because swearing is processed in a different area of the brain.

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  • Last Updated 19-11-2009
  • Last Reviewed 25-09-2009
  • Hartman, L. (1973). Some uses of dirty words by children. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 12(1), 108-122.

    Jay, T. (2000). Why we curse: A neuro-psycho-social theory of speech. Philedelphia, PA: John Benjamis.

    Kaye, B., & Sapolsky, B. (2004). Watch your mouth! An analysis of profanity uttered by children on prime-time television. Mass communication and society, 7(4), 429-452.

    Schor, E., & American Academy of Pediatrics (2003). Caring for your school-age child: ages 5-12. New York: Bantam Books.

    Van Lancker, D., & Cummmings, J. (1999). Expletives: neurolinguistic and neurobehavioral perspectives on swearing. Brain Research Reviews, 31(1), 83-104.