How To Get Your Child To Stop Cursing

My 13-year-old is picking-up on some terrible language. He has started dropping the “F” bomb on a frequent basis. Do you have any suggestions on how I can stop this cussing before it gets any worse?

Is your child starting to use some shocking words? And have your attempts to get it stopped angered your child – and made a bad problem worse? Then we need to talk...

Cussing is almost a developmentally normal behavior for kids during middle childhood and early adolescence. For these children, swearing is often a sign of being worldly (i.e., wise and unafraid to be a little "bad"). Profanity is used to impress peers and can become a part of peer-relationships. Quite frequently, younger kids do not know the meanings of the words they are using, but they will say them anyway simply because they have heard others use them.

Fortunately, cursing seems to lose its attraction as kids become more mature. Until then, however, children often delight in shocking their moms and dads with the swear words they have learned away from home. (Note: moms and dads who swear in the home are teaching their kids to do the same and should not be surprised when their children copy their behavior.)

Clearly, there is a smaller group of "defiant" kids who swear. In addition to cursing, they have many other difficulties, personally and socially. These children may be more prone to swear and rage at other people (a completely different situation than using a few swears words during times of frustration). Profanity directed at another person should never be tolerated.

Because some cuss words are more problematic than others, it is necessary to sort language into 3 categories: acceptable, unacceptable, and inappropriate.
  1. Acceptable language is what we read in a magazine or hear in a news broadcast. It is a formal or conventional level of speech that we hope our kids will eventually learn and use.
  2. Unacceptable language is that which must be forbidden for legal reasons. Unacceptable language includes harassment, libel, threats, gender or racial discrimination, and obscenity.
  3. Inappropriate language is the gray area between acceptable and unacceptable language. It is language that depends heavily on context, because different contexts pose different standards or restrictions on language and behavior. What constitutes appropriate speech on the playground may not be appropriate within the classroom.

Moms and dads should anticipate kid’s dirty language. Most normal kids will experiment with dirty words and dirty jokes in the course of growing up. They will also repeat powerful or offensive words that they hear grown-ups use. Kids may even make up unique words to use as insults. Kids enjoy using language in jokes, puns, and stories that grown-ups find "gross". Kids will freely make references to body products (e.g., poop), body processes (e.g., fart), and body parts (e.g., butthole). As kids mature, they become more aware of social and psychological aspects of human interaction, and their name calling will show their new awareness when you hear them using words such as weirdo, retard, fatty, jerk, and chicken.

School-age kids learn appropriateness when they are intellectually able to appreciate the impact of language on listeners and can empathize with them. Egocentric kids do not fully comprehend why words are offensive to listeners, but can be trained not to use offensive words. One might simply tell a 2- to 3-year-old not to use a word without much explanation. 5-year-olds, on the other hand, can be given an explanation for language restrictions. The 8-year-old is capable of empathy and is able to see that words can hurt others' feelings.

The first question to ask a youngster who has cussed is, "Why did you say that?" In other words, determine what caused the incident in the first place. Is the youngster seeking attention, bullying another youngster, or expressing anger? Was the youngster provoked by a peer or was the cursing more spontaneous? You also have to distinguish kids who have problems with language from kids who have emotional problems with anger or aggression (i.e., kids who use cursing as a general way to express anger).

Cursing is evoked by a small and predictable set of variables. Some kids are positively reinforced by siblings or moms and dads for cursing. Giving kids attention, such as laughing or asking them to repeat a dirty word, is enough to increase cursing behavior. One common source of cursing is exposure to inappropriate adult role models, either parental figures or grown-ups in the neighborhood. Popular culture in the form of television, movies, and music lyrics are also common sources of bad language. Kids who are allowed access to media without restrictions or supervision are likely to use bad language.

What a youngster hears at home or in the neighborhood may get repeated at school. In this case, cursing may reflect the youngster's home life. Similarly, teachers must address moms and dads' perceptions that bad speech at school reflects school life. Moms and dads who believe their kids are learning bad language from someone at school will usually complain. Both school and home speech contexts affect a youngster's vocabulary.

Many grown-ups have trouble with bad language from time to time. Unfortunately, some moms and dads have difficulty controlling their kid’s inappropriate language. Hearing racist, sexist, or offensive language may be a common experience for some kids.

Some kids may exhibit cursing as a symptom of underlying, severe psychological problems, such as child abuse or physiological disorders. Kids with psychological problems or uncontrollable anger outbursts may need special attention or counseling. Determining the cause of cursing is the first step in a comprehensive behavior modification process.

Here are some suggestions to help parents manage the problem of swearing:

1. Because young kids are little language vacuum cleaners ready to collect and repeat what they hear, parents and teachers should be careful to attend to their own language so that they are good role models. Don't be caught off guard. Don't overreact or laugh when kids cuss. What you do when a youngster sends out a "test" bad word may have a lasting impact on the youngster. When a youngster cusses intentionally or accidentally, be sure to act in the youngster's best interest. Work to establish a warm, positive relationship with him/her, so that he/she will seek you out for information and advice about words.

2. Control the physical environment and you control the behavior in it. Change factors which cause conflicts or disputes. Eliminate frustrating situations such as having too few toys to share. Remove frustrating furniture and barriers. Create areas that provide for smooth transitions between activities and eliminate confusion and arguments.

3. If you feel it is appropriate, establish a rule that "no swearing will take place in our home." Do not - under any circumstances - tolerate swearing that is aimed at someone in anger. If this occurs, a youngster may be sent immediately to his room for a timeout.

4. Minor swearing in frustration is almost a natural human behavior. Although perhaps inappropriate, it is commonplace in some families. If that is your own personal style, you will find it hard to teach your youngster something different.

5. On occasion, you may feel that your youngster is using profanity in an attempt to provoke a response from you. In these instances, ignoring him may be the most effective strategy.

6. Reinforce good language skills in the context of broader character building lessons which teach respect, reason, and responsibility. Kids should learn that calling a person a name is both hurtful and disrespectful. The particular word used is a secondary issue; the act of verbally abusing another person is the main problem. Kids must learn to take responsibility for the language they use. What you say can get you in trouble at home or at school. Kids need to learn that there is a cost to breaking language rules. On a practical level, kids need to learn to use reason or good judgment regarding when and where to use offensive language, knowing that some name calling or insults may lead to physical retaliation against the speaker. Using bad language might make other listeners perceive cursing as a sign that the speaker is uneducated or out of control. Teaching good language skills and building character when kids are young help prevent problems from developing later on.

7. Reward your youngster for expressing his frustration appropriately without swearing. Star charts and money are helpful approaches. For example, use a jar of quarters that he can earn at the end of two weeks. For each day that he doesn't swear during this time, two additional quarters will be placed in the jar; but each time he swears, quarters will be removed. Your youngster will catch on quickly.

8. Some kids play well alone but have difficulty suppressing name calling and bad language when playing with particular peers. When two kids consistently get into trouble together, separate them as much as possible during free play periods.

9. When your child swears, do not overreact with your own outbursts of rage and cursing. Also, washing a youngster's mouth out with soap is clearly improper, extreme and ineffective.

10. Your goal is to eliminate unacceptable language while at the same time increasing the use of acceptable language. Give rewards in the form of positive comments for kid’s good speech. Comments such as, "I like the way you say that" and "You used a good word today" are effective reinforcers. Remember that while praise works, over-praise does not.

Cussing has been around since the beginning of language, and there is no reason to believe that it will disappear on its own. What moms and dads can do is to understand the nature of cussing and how the total language environment influences kid’s use of cuss words -- and our reactions to it.

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