What to do when kids’ swearing becomes an issue

I wrote something recently about how to respond playfully if our kids tell us to “shut up”.  You can read that one here: Responding playfully to being told to “Shut up!”: The ventriloquist game!

And I had someone ask me if I had any suggestions for when kids’ use of harsh words goes beyond this, into swearing and using other offensive language.

Here are my thoughts …

Like the use of other harsh words, swearing can be a form of “acting out” of uncomfortable feelings, when kids do not feel the emotional safety to express the more vulnerable underlying feelings, like frustration, sadness and fear.

(At other times, particularly with younger children, it can just be them experimenting with words they’ve heard elsewhere.)

Hearing our child swear can really press our buttons! Although our first reaction might be to come down hard, or even punish, this kind of response is only likely to add to the disconnection and hurt feelings, possibly increasing the swearing.

And if we set an angry (or panicky) limit, demanding that they stop swearing immediately, like, “I won’t let you speak like that!”, and the child continues, it can make us feel really powerless and result in a power struggle, just making the situation worse.

In fact, the more tension we parents have around a behaviour, the more likely it is to become a problem. So, when any behaviour becomes problematic, my first suggestion is actually to find some time to do some introspection.

Our discomfort with our kids’ swearing is usually driven by the fact that it can touch on all sorts of conditioned beliefs about how children “should” behave.

And it can trigger all sorts of fears for our children, such as, what it means about the kind of person they are, what they will become, or how other people will judge them.

#@$_!! (1)

So if swearing has become an issue, one of the most helpful things we can do is to explore our feelings around it, give ourselves the opportunity to feel the feelings and allow them to move through us, preferably in the presence of an empathic listener.

The sorts of questions that it can be helpful to ask ourselves are:

  • What am I thinking and feeling when my child swears?
  • What do I want to say or do to them when they do it (even if I never would)?
  • Does this remind me of anything from my childhood?
  • What/who does it remind me of?
  • How did that feel for me back then?
  • What did I want to do or say back then?
  • What did I need, or need to hear, back then?

This can be done in a listening partnership (that is usually set up between two people to regularly exchange a set amount of listening time), with a counsellor or therapist, or through journalling.

Once we have released some of our own uncomfortable feelings around swearing, and perhaps reframed our beliefs (“They’re not a bad kid, they just have some tough feelings”), we can sometimes feel quite differently.

We will most likely find that it doesn’t bother us as much.

We might even find that we’re willing to accept it in certain circumstances, such as at home when it’s just family, and not directed at family members.

We are likely to be clearer on where our boundaries lie, and in a better position to express any limits firmly, but lovingly.

We can let our children know what our limit is, and we can communicate it in a way that is both grounded and relaxed, for example, “Nah, I don’t want to hear you swearing”. We can treat it like water off a duck’s back. We can then turn our attention to the message behind our child’s words, rather than their delivery.

Or we can use playful exaggeration of our feelings, for example, pretending to be exasperated or outraged, “What?! You can’t say that to me!”, but with kindness and a smile as if our child is being a “cheeky little thing”. I find this type of response really helpful, because it allows us to express our real feelings, but in a way that is non-threatening for our child.

❤️ These kinds of responses show unconditional love and acceptance for the child, but not the behaviour.

❤️ They can take the charge out of the swearing, and help to release the tension around it.

❤️ They can stop the swearing in its tracks, and we are likely to see a decline in swearing over time.

There are other playful ways to respond to swearing that aim to boost connection and take the power out of the offensive words.

One is pretending to mishear the swear words (using rhyming words), playing the fool, and then turning it into some power reversal play. So you might say, “Duck? Okay! (and then playfully duck down and look around making silly faces) … Oh, muck? I hope not, I just cleaned up yesterday! … Oh, chuck! I’ll chuck you!”, and then playfully run after them, but not be able to catch them, or catch them and playfully dump them on the sofa.

Some people also find it helpful to set up a dedicated time for swearing, where the child is encouraged to swear as much as they like within a limited timeframe, say, 5 minutes. This is sometimes affectionately termed, “Five Effing Minutes”. It’s probably even more effective if the parent joins in playfully, and I find that adding a bit of a tune or rhythm into my own expression can make it more fun.

We can view a child’s swearing as a need for this kind of time-in together, either as soon as they swear or some time later. For example, we might respond with, “It looks like you need Five Effing Minutes! Come on, let’s go!”, and then go straight into it together. The result can be so much more positive and effective than a simple limit, ending in connection rather than a power struggle.

Once there is less tension and more connection between us, we can offer understanding and empathy for the feelings underneath our child’s swearing, and invite them to share their more vulnerable feelings with us, saying, for example, “I guess you must have some really strong feelings to be using words like that … do you want to tell me more about it?”.

And it can also be helpful to consider whether our child’s swearing might be an indication that they are needing more connection in general. If so, we can make sure to offer regular one-on-one child-led connection and play each day, to fill our kids’ emotional cups.

I hope some of these ideas are helpful, and I’d love to hear if you give any of them a try and how they go!

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