When parents first hear their children swear it can be a mixed bag of emotions from funny, to concerned to embarrassed. As a parent your reaction will be the critical factor in whether they continue the behaviour.
Children swear for many different reasons, whether it is to express how they are feeling, to fit in socially by standing out, to be funny, or just because they want attention from parents.
Children learn words from their surroundings and also learn reactions and feelings about those words from people. If your child does use a swear word its important not to encourage your child to think its funny or especially interesting – as they will get a thrill out of any word that gets a rise or laugh out of parents.
Parents need to collaborate with each other to decide what words are acceptable for their children to use and what are not. Even more importantly parents need to abide by the rules they set themselves – even in challenging circumstances.
There are constructive ways to correct a child's bad language that avoids lashing out or unnecessary punishment.
Don't overact but act immediately
While it is important not to ignore behaviour like swearing, making a big fuss will only reinforce the behaviour. Children strive for attention from their parents, whether it is positive or negative. If they receive excessive attention for a negative behaviour like swearing, they may remember that it receives attention and repeat it.
Have a discussion
As your children get older it is inevitable that they will be exposed to what you consider unacceptable language. Your child needs limits and to know what is expected of them. Having a discussion about what is appropriate and what isn't in your family will be important. As a parent you are the one teaching your child about words, so ensure that you explain that it is not okay to use swear words and discuss the effect they have on others such as offending and/ or hurting others feelings.
Set family rules
All households are different in words they consider acceptable and not. Having a set of rules that align with your family values will be important to set boundaries. These should be things the whole family abides by, as it is less confusing if rules apply to both children and parents, otherwise your child will be getting mixed messaging.
Limit exposure to bad language through media
Be aware of what your child is watching and listening to by monitoring the rating on movies, games, TV shows and music as these will greatly influence how your child understands and learns about words. It could be helpful to have rules restricting devices to family areas where you are better able to control the content they view as opposed to bedrooms.
Avoid conflict if your child is upset
Sometimes children use swear words to express negative feelings, particularly if they have heard others do the same. If this is the case, don't react, instead take time to calm them down and talk when the negative atmosphere has cleared. Give your child the chance to express their feelings and use constructive comments to teach them the correct way to handle difficult feelings. Parents should also be cautious about using swear words when they are angry, as their child will likely do the same.
Swearing is an inevitable stepping-stone for your children, and while many will not understand what they are saying or the meaning of it, it is important that parents respond in a constructive way that does not encourage it further. Parents are teaching their children the reactions they will get out of words from simple looks and actions when they say them, so remember to respond without emotion and give immediate direction against the behaviour, as it is something that will quickly become a habit.
Dr Anna Cohen is a leading Sydney Child Clinical Psychologist. For more information or professional advice visit Kids & Co.