What to do When Your Child Uses Bad Words

Children are born with an innate ability to learn language. However, learning to differentiate between good and bad words takes time. So, along with good words, they pick up a few bad ones as well.

By Arun Sharma

What to do When Your Child Uses Bad Words

Right from the moment children are born, they start learning language by listening to conversations of grown-ups around them. Their vocabulary gradually increases and they begin using more and more words to express themselves.

Listening to a little one speak is an extremely enjoyable and amusing experience, not only for parents but also for everyone around. However, these happy times can turn into moments of acute embarrassment for parents when their angel starts uttering bad words. And, after it happens once, parents always feel jittery and unsure the next time their little one starts to speak.

Are you also a parent who starts feeling anxious when your child starts speaking? Do you keep whispering to your child while amongst family and friends, reminding and warning him to speak ‘properly’? And, more than anything else, are you desperately searching for ways to refrain your child from using dirty or swear words?

Reading our article will help you get to the bottom of the issue. You will understand how your child learns bad words, why she uses it, and what you should do to keep her vocabulary free of bad words.

How do children learn bad words?

A child usually learns bad words from adults around him. But it’s not always the adults who are at fault. A child can also learn curse words from his peers who, in turn, may have been exposed to adults speaking bad words. And, nowadays, when most children watch TV and actively use the Internet, they learn swear words from these sources as well. So, there are many sources from which children learn to curse.

In their article in the Daily Mail, dt. 12 Apr 2013, Hugo Gye and David Gardner reveal a fact which is of great concern. They quote language expert Dr Mellissa Mohr from Stanford University in California, who says, “The surprising preponderance of swearing in everyday language probably explains why the majority of children know at least one obscene word by the age of two.”

Why do children use bad words?

A child can swear for a variety of reasons, but not necessarily because she understands the meaning of the words. Some of the reasons why a child can swear are: to explore the language, to fit into a group that swears, to sound funny, to attract attention, to imitate, or to hurt or upset others.

What should you do?

How you react to your child using bad words will determine whether your child drops the habit or continues with it. Here’s what you should do.

  • When your child uses a bad word, don’t overreact or panic. Stay calm and explain to him that the word he has used is not acceptable. Speak to him about his choice of words.
If a parent expresses shock, or resorts to punishing the child, this behaviour can actually get reinforced and might surface each time the child wishes to provoke the parent. Instead, a better approach would be to calmly tell the child that such language is inappropriate, and that if he/she still chooses to use such language, there would be consequences. It is necessary to negotiate the consequences beforehand, when the child is in a good mood and willing to listen, rather than to hurl it at him/her in the heat of the moment. When parents impose sudden consequences without prior negotiation with the child, it no longer remains a consequence – it becomes a punishment. 

     — Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play                    Skills (PTUK)

  • Don’t laugh even if you are amused by the word your child has used. She may repeat the word again in future when she wants to make you laugh.
  • Keep a check on what your child watches on TV or the Internet. To do so, keep the TV and the computer in a place from where it is easily visible to you.
  • Pay close attention to the words you speak. Most of the time, children learn curse words at home from their parents. If a curse word escapes your lips while your child is listening, apologise immediately to set a good example.
  • Observe when your child uses bad words. Often, children utter curse words when they feel diffident, lonely or angry, like being teased by friends. Once you understand the situations when he uses bad words, offer your support and teach him ways to ignore it.
  • Teach your child appropriate words to express his emotions instead of using swear words. Explain to him that swear words can also hurt others just as hitting or punching can.
  • Praise your child when she is about to utter a bad word but corrects herself in time.

What if your child doesn’t listen to you

Sometimes, even after they have been told not to use bad words, some children keep using them. In such cases, parents should tell their child about the consequences like time-outs, or loss of TV or Internet time. Also, reinforce the rules to the child by saying things like, “It isn’t good to use such bad words; we don’t do it in our family,” or “We only use polite language.”

Remember, it takes time for a child to modify her behaviour. So, be patient and keep trying. But, if you find that your child is unable to leave behind the habit of using curse words, seek professional help from a psychologist or a counsellor.


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