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. They might not understand that swear words aren’t acceptable.
When young children swear: what to do
If you know why your child is swearing, it can help you decide on the best way to respond.
Swearing for attention
If your child is swearing because it gets your attention or a strong reaction from you, it’s best to respond by ignoring the swearing completely. Stay calm and don’t react. Avoid making eye contact, laughing, getting angry, or saying anything. This can stop the swearing and prevent further swearing.
You can also give your child plenty of positive attention and praise when they use polite language.
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 frustrated’. It’s important for your child to know that it’s OK 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 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.
Swearing while trying to say a new word
Sometimes swearing happens because your child is trying to say a new word, so ‘sit’ and ‘truck’ come out sounding more like swear words. In this situation, it’s a good idea to gently correct your child’s pronunciation. Avoid giving the word too much attention or laughing at it, because this can encourage your child to say it again.
Talking with children about swearing
If your child keeps swearing, or you want to help your child learn about swearing, you can try talking with them about their choice of words.
Toddlers and preschoolers under four years are too young to understand why swear words aren’t OK for children. It’s enough just to say, ‘That’s not a nice word’, or ‘We don’t use that word’.
Preschoolers don’t always understand the meaning of swear words, but they can understand that swear words can hurt or offend others. So you could say, ‘We don’t use words that upset people’. You can also say that there are some words that are not OK for children to say, even if they hear other people saying them.
Older preschoolers might get some good from simple explanations of what swear words mean. If you think your child is ready for this, you can start by asking your child what they think the word means. Then use general terms to explain why it’s not OK. For example, you could say, ‘That’s a word for poo, and it’s not nice to use’.
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. For example, in some families, expressions like ‘Oh my god’ are OK, 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 nicer word’, or ‘We don’t use words like that’.
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-partner can’t agree on rules about swearing, just tell your child that you have different rules and say which words aren’t OK in your home.
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, as well as 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 them dealing appropriately with anger or frustration. For example, if your child tells you that a playmate 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. Check the ratings on TV, movies, games and apps. Avoid watching shows with swearing while your child is around. And keep TVs, computers and other devices in areas where you can easily see and hear them.
Preschoolers (and some toddlers) can be intrigued by private body parts and bodily functions. They might start to use words like ‘bum head’, ‘poo face’ and ‘farty’. Although some of these words might not be OK in your home, it’s probably just a phase. Ignoring the words or explaining that they can’t be used will help.
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 in the media can lead to an increase in swearing in children. As children get older, their friends and peers will influence their choice of words too.