5 tips on what to do when your child swears

When children swear, parents should try to stay calm and not overreact, parenting experts say. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

SINGAPORE – When Ms Esther Foong-Tan’s daughter was three years old, she told her elder brother to “f*** off”.

Ms Foong-Tan, 38, was shocked as swearing is not allowed in their family, but it turned out to be a teachable moment.

She recalls resisting the urge to react emotively. She calmly asked her pre-schooler Phoebe if she knew what the expletive meant.

Phoebe thought it meant “to go away” and was “grossed out” when her mother gave a brief, age-appropriate explanation. Phoebe, now aged nine, has not used the profanity since.

“How we respond to our children swearing will determine if they continue to use vulgarities – sometimes in secret, unknown to us – or if they stop,” says Ms Foong-Tan, a family life educator.

She is a co-founder of parent group SGFamilies, and she and her husband Elvin Foong, 41, are co-founders of The Treasure Box Singapore, a company that provides families with parenting resources and training. Their son, Nathan, is 11.

Most children swear as a rite of passage, and research suggests that kids are doing so at a younger age than before.

In 2010, American psychology professor Timothy Jay presented data at the Sociolinguistics Symposium held in Britain, which found that children as young as two were using swear words, an earlier age than had been recorded in the three decades prior.

Prof Jay, who has published extensively on the topic of swearing, said that the rise in vulgarity among adults coincided with a similar uptick in the number of young people using offensive language.

It is developmentally normal for children to try out swear words, says Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, which offers counselling and psychotherapy services.

The reasons are multitudinous and depend on the age of the child.

Older children in their tweens or early teens may be navigating how they fit in socially or they may want to feel that they are “being a little bad”, says Dr Games.

Younger children, like pre-schoolers, who use curse words are usually exploring language, she adds.

Since testing boundaries in using profanity is almost expected in children, parents should be prepared to respond, says Dr Games.

Here are some suggestions on what to do when your youngster swears.

1. Do not overreact

Ms Foong-Tan thinks that if she had had a “big reaction” to her daughter Phoebe’s first attempt at profanity, there might have been a different outcome. As a little child then, Phoebe may have registered that the expletive “cannot be said in front of mama and papa”, but may have continued to use the vulgarity in situations where her parents were absent.

“This doesn’t solve the problem in the long run,” says Ms Foong-Tan.

“Sometimes, children swear because they want to express an emotion and don’t have the vocabulary to do so. We can teach them alternative words and solutions.”

For instance, children can be taught to take actions such as walking away or telling their parents that they are annoyed, she adds.

In cases where children resort to swearing as they are unable to express emotions such as anger and frustration, Dr Games recommends validating the child’s feelings in the moment.

“You want the child to know it is okay to have that emotion. When the situation is calmer, address the swearing, such as by saying how you appreciate that the child was upset, but that there are better ways to express it,” says Dr Games.

“You want them to pause, which gives them time to align themselves according to how they want to respond. It’s empowering for them to make decisions for themselves.”

2. Talk about it

There is no need to sweep the topic under the carpet, though there is a place for the judicious use of “planned ignoring”, says clinical psychologist Sanveen Kang.

Dr Kang, founder of Psych Connect, a specialist psychology clinic with child development and wellness services, says: “On occasion, you may feel that your child is using profanity to provoke a response from you. If so, ignoring him or her may be the most effective strategy. Do not respond or look at your child. If he or she does not get attention for using the swear word, the cursing may stop.”

Ms Foong-Tan encourages parents to help their children assess if swearing brings any value to their situation, and how other people may view them if they swear habitually.

In her daughter Phobe’s case all those years ago, cursing did not remedy the situation she found herself in. Phoebe had wanted her brother to stop bothering her, but he complained to Ms Foong-Tan about Phoebe instead.

Older children can also be guided to discern whether swearing is in keeping with their values, says Ms Foong-Tan.

“When a child understands the meaning and impact of swearing, he or she can then make an informed decision about whether to carry on swearing,” she adds.

Now that her children are in their tweens, they correct her on rare occasions in a running family joke.

“I once said something was ‘damn irritating’ and my kids asked, ‘Do you have an alternative word, mama?’ I taught them too well,” says Ms Foong-Tan.

3. Try not to laugh too much

Profanity in the mouths of babes can be hilarious.

In 2021, video footage was uploaded online showing a toddler insisting there was “a f****** goat” in the backyard. The clip went viral, garnering millions of views on social media.

Laughing too hard in such scenarios may reinforce to the child that swearing “brings delight to adults”, which may not be helpful, says Dr Games.

4. Affirm your child’s efforts

Discuss with your child which words are unacceptable and agree to specific consequences such as loss of a privilege if inappropriate terms are used, says Dr Kang.

Dr Kang adds: “Pay attention to the behaviours you want to encourage. Praise your child if he went the whole day without using a swear word.” 

Although children may be exposed to swear words in the media or through their friends, basic gatekeeping is needed for younger children. 

Dr Kang suggests “being aware of what your child watches, listens to and plays with”. Parents can check the ratings on television shows, movies, games and apps, and avoid watching shows with such language in the presence of their children.

5. Do not make it personal

Be clear about your family values as families differ on whether they choose to ban swearing altogether, or take a more casual approach.

Dr Kang says: “As parents, we can decide which words are acceptable for our children to use and which words we want to remain forbidden.”

Look at whether there are underlying behavioural issues that should be addressed, rather than focusing on the language used. For example, using swear words as a form of verbal abuse is concerning, says Dr Games.

Sometimes, parents think their children swearing is a reflection of their parenting. She says: “Children make mistakes, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. You’re their guide in this.”

Parents can take heart from the fact that “as children get more mature, the attraction of swearing seems to lessen”.

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