By Raising Children Network
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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.

Toddler laughing cheekily

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

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

Why do children swear?

Young children often swear because they’re exploring language. They might be testing a new word, perhaps to understand its meaning. They might also be trying to express a feeling such as 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: 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 her about swearing, try talking to her about her choice of words. For example, you could say, ‘We don’t use words that upset people’.

Preschoolers might not fully understand the words they use, but they can understand that swear words can hurt or offend others.

Should I explain what the word means?
Generally, toddlers and preschoolers don’t need explanations of swear words. They are too young to understand some of the concepts associated with the more common swear words. It’s enough just to say, ‘That’s not a nice word’.

Older 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 him what he 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, and it’s not nice to use’.

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 ‘damn’ are okay, but other words are not.
  • Discuss your family rules about acceptable language with your child. For example, you might say, ‘Please use a nicer word’, or ‘We don’t use words like that’.
  • 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 modeling 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 her dealing appropriately with anger or frustration. For example, if your child tells you that a playmate was using swear words to tease her, praise your child for walking away from the situation and not using those words herself.

Preschoolers (and some toddlers) can be intrigued by private body parts and bodily functions. They might start to use words such as ‘bum head’, ‘poo face’ and ‘farty’. Although some of these words might be unacceptable in your house, this is a phase that most children go through. They are just testing out the words and your reactions. Ignoring the words or letting your child know that they can’t be used will help curb this behaviour.

Children who hear swear words can often 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 his feelings using more appropriate words, or to get away from what is 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.
  • If you think your child is swearing to fit in socially, discuss other ways she can gain acceptance from her friends. For example, think of another ‘cool’ expression she can use.
  • If the swearing is because of frustration, talk your child through the steps to 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.
  • 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.

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. Almost half of parents in our RCN reader survey reported that they believe their children learned to swear from the parents themselves. This isn’t too surprising – more than 40% of the parents responding to our survey said they swear every day.

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. As children get older, their friends and peers will influence their choice of words too.

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 25-09-2009
  • 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.