When do children start swearing?
Children as young as 3 can use swear words that they hear people around them say. Jay and Janschewitz, in their article ‘The Science of Swearing’ found that by the time they start school children generally know between 30 and 40 offensive words! At 11 the swearing becomes more adult-like, and children learn most of the swear words from parents, peers and siblings.
There are some families I work with, where swearing is a big problem, with the child swearing repeatedly at nursery or school. Most parents are acutely embarrassed about their child’s swearing, but often don’t have a clue about how to stop them. Unfortunately, the normal tactic of shouting or punishing a child for swearing can inadvertently cause the child to swear more.
If a child is repeatedly swearing, it’s useful to unpick why they’re swearing. There are 15 strategies you can use to stop them, and if one technique doesn’t work you and add in more strategies until the swearing stops.
Why do children swear?
To tackle swearing, it’s useful first to understand, why is your child swearing?
- Is it copying words they’ve heard from parents, siblings family or friends?
- Is it because they are upset or annoyed about a situation and swear to help others understand how strongly they feel about it?
- Is it to get a reaction? Or to make people laugh?
- Is it to annoy their parents, because they feel angry, upset or controlled?
- Is it because the child is ‘entitled’ and feels the parents should give them what they want? So, they swear to ‘teach their parents a lesson!’ because they know how much it annoys them.
- Is it because the child has a naughty or ‘rebel’ identity? Do they feel they can’t be good at being good? So, they’ll be really good at being bad.
- Is it because the child is suddenly shocked, and the word slips out unintentionally?
- Do they lack self-control generally, and don’t know how to stop themselves swearing?
- For an older child, is it to fit in with their friends?
- Or to look cool in front of peers?
- Or is there a brain defect, such as damage to the child’s frontal lobe, Tourette’s or aphasia.
10 ways to stop a child swearing
1. Don’t overreact
Children will often swear because it causes a big reaction. Whether that’s shocked silence, shouting or laughter. If your child swears, try to act as if they have said a completely harmless word. And do your best not to laugh. If you shout at your child or get angry, inadvertently you’ll me making it more likely your child will swear in the future. So, stay utterly calm.
2. Empathise, then talk about the swearing later
If your child has sworn because they were upset or angry, empathise with them. “Oooh! looks like that really hurt.” Or “It sounds like you’re really upset. That is so annoying.”
Later, sit down and talk with your child. Start with empathising again with why your child swore. “DO you remember earlier when you burned your hand? That really hurt!
Do you remember what you said? Can we talk about that?
It’s not OK to say that word in our house.
3. Explain what words mean
It’s highly likely that your child doesn’t understand the meaning of the swear word. So, if they’re old enough, explain it to them.
Then say “Can you see that it doesn’t make sense when you say; “I don’t know where the F**cking cat is!” That would mean you don’t know where the cat is that is having sex. It’s best to use words that say what you mean. If you want to empathise it, say “I really don’t know where the cat is.”
4. Explain why swearing offends others
It’s important to explain to your child “Lots of people don’t like swearing. To them it sounds angry or offensive Especially if it comes out of a child’s mouth. If other parents hear you swear, they won’t want you hanging around their child.
If you swear, other people may feel offended or hurt. They’ll think less of you. And they’ll think I’m doing a bad job as a parent. And if you swear at school, and a teacher hears you, you can expect them to be much harsher than we are dealing with it. So, don’t let me down, OK?
5. Find alternative words
Sometimes a child will want to use a strong word to add impact to what they want to say. So, work out what other words your child could use, and teach them alternatives.
Could they say ‘Merlin’s beard, Poo, holy moly, son of a monkey, cheese and rice, Oh, curses! Or anything that you’d feel happy for your child to say in front of their grandparents, when they’re upset or angry. For some children it can be useful to have a list of words in their drawer that they can’t use, and a list of those they can. Just to make it crystal clear what is and isn’t a swear word. Alternatively, you could also explain that swearing is OK provided they do it in their bedroom, and no one hears it.
6. Teach your child to manage their anger
It’s really important to teach your child ways to calm themselves down in the moment, from pretending to pull a toilet chain (and flush it away) to taking three deep breaths, walking away or saying a mantra in their head. “I’m OK. I can handle this!” It can also help to teach your child four ways to control their impulses, and get them to choose which one works best for them.
7. Use role play
Your child may be able to tell you exactly what they should say instead of swearing, but when they’re suddenly overwhelmed with anger, out pop the swear words!
However, you can help them remember what to say by using role play. “Let’s go back to what happened. Pretend you touch my mug and it’s really hot. What can you say? Owwww! Yes, that’s good. What else? “Ah, ah, Son of a gun!” Yes, good one! And what could you say if I said, “Sorry, you can’t go to the party, we’re going to Grandma’s birthday meal that day.” What could you say then?” Awwww. Oh nooooo! Yes, I really felt that! How do you think you could remember to say that?
8. Stop swearing yourself
Most children swear because they’ve heard it from their parents. It’s OK to say “Charlie, I realised I swore other day, when I hit my thumb with a hammer. I shouldn’t have said that. This morning you swore when your ball went over the fence. How about we both try and stop. Tell you what, if I say a word I shouldn’t say, I’ll put £1 in this jar, and if you swear, then you put 50p in, out of your pocket money. And then, we’ll use the money towards our electricity bill. Or if either of us swear, we have to spend 10 minutes doing something nice for everyone who heard us.
9. Wear out the word
If your child absolutely can’t stop swearing, you may like to try this reverse-psychology technique where you make the swear word a negative consequence. SO, if your child says the word ‘F*CK’ you get them to sit down and say the same word, over and over again a minute for each year of age – so a 4-year-old would say the word ‘F*ck’ again and again for four minutes. And an 8-year-old would say it for 8 minutes. One quick word of caution however, don’t get your child to do this if there is any chance of them being overheard! Lol!
10 Catch your child talking nicely
You may feel that this strategy is a bit lame. After all, you only notice your child’s language when they swear. But the best way to break a habit is to focus on the good behaviour. So for every half hour your child doesn’t swear, put a tick on a chart. 20 ticks mean they can earn a cheap or free reward – such as some time with you doing something they love.
When you keep commenting and pay attention to the good behaviour, especially when they were under stress or likely to swear, your child is much more likely to remember to use polite respectful language. If they forget- be as disappointed as they are that they forgot to use their self-control.
It can take a while for your child to remember not to swear, but if you are utterly consistent about tackling this, pretty soon you’ll find the language your child uses is a lot more acceptable, and you won’t need to worry about what they say when they’re angry or annoyed. Just make sure you keep you stop swearing too and soon you’ll be confident that the language at home is as clean as a whistle!