Kids start swearing at different ages for various reasons. Here are some age-appropriate ways to handle the situation.
It started as a question posed to the 12,000 mums in our Mums At The Table Facebook group: “My daughter is two and has started swearing. How do I nip this in the bud? She does not hear it from us, it’s probably from daycare. Also, how do you deal with this as they get older?”
Children copy everything they see and hear. Swear words have become so common in our everyday speak it’s difficult to shield children from them. Even words heard in passing will be queried and copied, much less words they hear friends or family say.
Getting children to stop swearing will require different strategies depending on their age. Let’s break them down by age groups.
Why children start swearing
To effectively stop children from swearing, we first need to understand why they are doing it.
Toddlers and preschoolers are still exploring and understanding language. They often start swearing to test out new words they might have heard from friends or family. Sometimes, it’s simply because they get a reaction (good or bad) from those around them when they swear.
Primary schoolers often understand the meaning of swear words and can use them in context. They usually do this to express negative feelings. Some may swear to fit in socially or to get a reaction from their parents.
How to stop children swearing
Regardless of your child’s age, it’s important to pause before reacting to your children’s actions. Giving children attention—whether it’s outrage, concern or laughter—to what they’re doing can encourage repeated behaviour.
Toddlers and preschoolers
If you know your child is swearing to get a reaction, simply ignore the swearing. Don’t make eye contact, respond or say anything. Melanie from our group agrees: “Don’t laugh at them or entertain it. I would also then ignore it. I did this and it worked for me.”
If your child accidentally swears because they’re having difficulty pronouncing a new word (think “truck” or “sit”), just gently correct them. Be sure not to laugh or give their mispronunciation too much attention as it can encourage them to repeat it.
When there is repeated use, it may be a good idea to talk to them about it. As toddlers and preschoolers are too young to understand the meaning and impact of swear words, you can simply say:
- “That’s not a nice word and we don’t say it.”
- “It’s an adult word and not for little children.”
- “We don’t use those words as they can upset people.”
As children get older, they will begin to understand the context for swearing. Often, school-age children swear either to express frustration or to lash out at someone. When this happens, acknowledge and recognise their emotions, but encourage them to find alternate ways to express themselves.
This may be a good opportunity to explore why they’ve chosen the words they have and encourage them to pinpoint what they were feeling that caused them to swear. Don’t just tell them what they should do instead. Encourage them to come up with different ways to express their emotions. This way, they can take ownership of their actions.
Ensure children know the impact of their words and how it can make others feel. Rochelle Borton is a mother of six and founder of EduInfluencer, a company that trains schools and teachers. In her experience, she has found three steps that appropriately addresses the issue of swearing:
- Boundaries: We don’t tolerate the use of inappropriate language and swearing to name-call or to be aggressive or nasty toward another person.
- Have conversations: Emphasise that regardless of frustration, anger or the inability to regulate how we might feel toward another person, we draw a hard line at using language as a slur, a put-down or with the intent to harm another.
- Be open: It’s bound to happen eventually when a word slips. Accept it, have a conversation and set boundaries.
Children will understand and respect clear rules and boundaries. Give them concrete examples of when and where swearing may be acceptable (if at all), and help them explore healthy alternatives.
Take advantage of the opportunity
Conversations with your children about swearing are great opportunities to create an environment to talk about feelings and learn about social etiquette. Stay calm when talking to them and you will go a long way to moulding an emotionally aware, respectful young person.
Our children are a mirror of ourselves, so be sure to model the type of behaviour (or speech patterns) you wish to see in them as well.
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