How to Discipline your Child for Foul Language

Worried that your child is using bad language? Here are some ideas to get her to turn over a new leaf.

By Dr Geetika Agarwal

How to Discipline your Child for Foul Language

Sudhir is a cute 4-year-old. But when he starts talking, there is no telling when he will start using curse words. His parents are nervous when they have guests over or when they take him to other people’s houses.

When Amrita mouthed angry words without understanding the meaning as a toddler, she sounded cute. But now she is 9 and continues to use foul language when she gets angry. Her parents are especially concerned as her younger brother is beginning to imitate her.

As parents, many of us face such scenarios. Though most of us may use foul language on occasion, we do tend to worry when our children engage in such behaviour.

Why do children use foul language?

To understand why your child is using foul language, you must first consider his age. If a young child uses expletives, he might just be repeating what he has heard around him. A child’s exposure to foul words could be from:

  • his own family
  • audio/ visual media

In such cases, you should remember that the child doesn’t understand the implications or meaning of these words – he is simply repeating what he has heard.

If it is an older child, there could be multiple reasons for the use of bad language.

To get attention: It could be an easy, effective way to gain an adult’s attention. If the child has failed in her attempts to get an adult’s attention, she might use profanity. The adult comes running to correct her behaviour and the child is happy – even if it is negative attention.

To get what he wants: Depending upon the consequences the child faces for using foul language, he might use it to his advantage. For example, he might not want to play with a child who has come over. He might then use foul language in the presence of adults, knowing he will be sent to his room as a punishment. So, while the parents think they are correcting the child’s behaviour, they are actually rewarding or reinforcing it.

To vent anger: In some cases, a child may have limited language or vocabulary skills and may not know how to express herself appropriately. In this situation, she will look for models and examples from her environment and if she finds people using foul language, so will she when she is angry or frustrated. She just doesn’t know any better.

So, what do you do?

Ignore the statement: When your young one calls his friend ‘an idiot’, he might just be repeating something he has heard other people say. While you might be shocked and immediately try to correct him, you would do better to ignore the statement. By drawing attention to it, you may end up encouraging (reinforcing) the behaviour. Your child might learn that by using foul language he can easily get your attention.

Remain calm: If your child uses foul language again, remain calm and say in a neutral tone, “These are not kind words to use with our friends.” Again, it’s important not to draw excessive attention to this event and to continue to be a positive role model.

Don’t force an apology: Sometimes you may be tempted to tell your child, “Say sorry. You used bad words and made him sad.” This strategy is not effective, as young children don’t understand the idea of empathy or how other people might feel. Instead, you could say in a neutral, calm tone, “How would you feel if someone called you idiot? Can you think of a nicer way to explain why you are angry?” Or, “When you called Smriti an idiot, it made her feel sad and unhappy. I understand you are angry with her. Can you think of other words to use when you are angry?” Again, help her come up with appropriate words and phrases.

Other ideas you can use

Every household has different rules for foul language. Though the word ‘idiot’ may be acceptable in your family, it might not be in another. Whatever the differences, when a child uses foul language, it is always a matter of concern for parents. Here are some strategies to prevent or minimise situations where your child resorts to cursing.

Be a good role model: The importance of being a good role model cannot be emphasised enough. Your child is highly likely to imitate and repeat what she sees parents, grandparents, the domestic help, neighbours and friends do. While most people take care to use appropriate language around children, sometimes they do end up cursing someone. If you are caught in such a situation, acknowledge that you used unacceptable, hurtful language and could have used other appropriate words. Remember also that it’s important that there is consistency in the child’s environment. This means everyone in the family should follow the same house rule of not cursing.

Use a ‘swear jar’: Many families use a ‘swear jar’. They make their house a ‘no cursing zone’ with this rule applying to all the family members. If any member breaks this rule, he has to put in some money or give up something that is dear to him. It’s important that this is applicable to everyone and is used consistently. There can be other such rules applicable to all the family members.

Consider the context: Consider the context in which your child used foul language. The way you respond to him will differ based on whether he used it when trying to express his emotions or against a person. If the child’s language is limited, use the moment as an opportunity to teach. If the child deliberately used such language, it is still important to stay calm and to explain to him the consequences. You may have to do this multiple times before you see a change in his behaviour.

Consider the age of the child: When correcting your child, keep her developmental age in mind. Sometimes she might not understand the consequences of using foul language.

Use positive parenting: Use encouragement, positive phrases or verbal compliments when you hear your child using appropriate language. It is easier to increase a particular behaviour by giving attention to it. When you reinforce good behaviour, you are also teaching the child the right behaviour for various settings.

Go easy on punishments: It is tempting and often easier to punish the child to get him to stop using bad language. However, these may sometimes have the opposite effect – indicating the ineffectiveness of such punishment. At such moments, pause, and try to understand the child’s behaviour based on the various suggestions just described. Also, consider using positive and reinforcement-based strategies rather than punishment, as punishment has these limitations:

  1. It doesn’t teach your child the correct behaviour; it teaches him what not to do, rather than what to do.
  2. It can have long-term consequences for the relationship between you and your child.
  3. It can be emotionally overwhelming or damaging for the child.

Go in for planned intervention: Sometimes a child may use foul language excessively and may have passed the stage where simple corrections and feedback are effective. When this is the case, try to first understand the reason for or the function of this behaviour. Is the child cursing to get adult attention (attention function), to get out of work (escape function) or to gain access to work (tangible function)?

After you have identified the reason, try to correct the underlying cause.

Use some kind of data collection system, so that both you and your child can objectively see changes in her use of foul language. Depending upon the child’s age you could use a chart with stars or a token system. Make sure you set the child attainable goals so that she can receive the reward. As the child attains the goal, you can slowly give her a new one that is closer to your target. For example, if Sudhir used foul language only 4 times a day for 3 days in a row, you can give him the goal of making it 3 times in a day for 3 days in a row. Keep the intervention system reward-based and also positive. Continue to provide encouragement as the child increases his use of appropriate language.

If you put these ideas into action, you are sure to see a gradual change in your child. You will no longer need to worry about people dropping in or taking her out to visit!


Dr Geetika Agarwal, Faculty Ball State University, Indiana and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Licensed Psychologist and Behavior Analyst.


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