Swearing: why do school-age children do it?
When school-age children swear, it’s usually to express negative feelings. It’s often 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.
Some children swear because it gets a strong reaction from their parents.
What to do about swearing: 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 OK. You could also explain that the word might hurt other people’s feelings. This will go a long way towards preventing future swearing.
Should you explain what the word means?
School-age children can get some good from a simple explanation. 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 OK.
For example, you could say, ‘That’s a word for private body parts. We don’t use it like that in our family’. Or you could explain that the word is racist, sexist or disrespectful of particular groups of people.
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 OK, 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, ‘Remember, that’s not a word we use in our home’.
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.
Here are more ideas to encourage respectful speaking and reduce swearing in your family:
- Explain to your child that some words that are acceptable at home might not be acceptable at school (or church or other children’s homes). Different places have different rules.
- 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. If your child has heard you swearing, it can also help to explain why you were swearing.
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.
- Be aware of what your child watches, listens to and plays with. That means supervising and checking the ratings on TV, movies and other multimedia and music. It’s also a good idea to have the TV, computers and other devices in a part of the house where you can easily see them.
Your child will hear words in public that you’ve 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.
Tackling swearing by dealing with the cause
If you know why your child is swearing, it can help you to decide on an appropriate response.
Swearing to fit in socially
If you think your child is swearing to fit in socially, try talking with your child about why she thinks her friends swear. You could talk about other ways she can get acceptance from her friends. For example, there might be another ‘cool’ expression she could use.
As children get older it’s good to remind them that they can use different language in different groups of people – but that some words are never acceptable.
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 OK to feel these emotions. But 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 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.
With frustration, you can talk your child through steps for sorting out problems for himself. For example, if he’s trying to tie his shoelaces, suggest he starts by crossing the laces under each other, then makes the bows, 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.
When your child pushes the boundaries with swearing
Some children will keep pushing swearing boundaries after being told not to. If you find yourself in this situation, you could try the following strategies:
- Clearly state the rules. For example, you could say, ‘We use respectful language in this family’.
- Clearly state that you won’t tolerate any abusive behaviour or language that’s directed towards others. School-age children can understand about hurting others’ feelings.
- Tell your child what the consequences will be if you hear swear words – for example, time-out or loss of privileges like TV time, pocket money and so on.
- Praise your child for not swearing in situations where she normally would. Or if she has gone a long time without swearing, tell her how proud you are that she has used manners and lots of respectful language.
If swearing is one of several inappropriate behaviours that your child shows, you might consider seeking help from a child health professional like 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. Not all children learn swearing from their parents.
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.