How to Talk About Swear Words With Kids

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Language is a powerful thing. Not only is it a vital part of human interaction, but the words people use allow them to share their ideas, thoughts, and feelings with others.

When your kids are small, they are still learning the true definitions of words. Consequently, they may try out different words to gauge your response and determine whether they have used them correctly. As they get older, they may even choose to use certain words—particularly swear words—to get a reaction from you, or to fit in socially with their peers.

As parents, the key is not only teaching kids that words have power and meaning, but that certain words may not be appropriate to use, especially in certain social situations. Swear words, in particular, fit into this category. Not only can they be hurtful, but they also can be offensive.

"Helping our kids feel empowered about the words they choose and what they mean is a great way to involve them and help them make choices that communicate the meaningful things they are trying to share," says Jennie David, PhD, a psychologist in the division of pediatric psychology and neuropsychology at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

If your child has recently been experimenting with swear words, you may be wondering where this is coming from and what you can do. Here is what you need to know about why kids curse, how to talk to them about swear words, and how to encourage them to use respectful language instead.

Why Kids Might Swear

While there are any number of reasons why younger children and school-aged kids may swear, according to Dr. David, some common explanations include trying out new language, imitating other peers or adults, copying what they see on TV or the internet, or trying to understand why a specific word causes a reaction without necessarily understanding what it means.

"After observing that a sibling swearing causes a reaction from an adult, [a younger] child may be curious about what would happen if they tried it as well," explains Dr. David. "Younger children saying or writing curse words is often very normative as young people develop and experience how nuanced language can be. Many ‘try on’ words like they try on clothes to see what fits and what works for them, which may involve ‘trying on’ a swear word."

Kids also might use profanity because they have heard others do the same. Regardless of whether they hear the words in your house or at another, kids are like sponges and are often listening. And even if they do not know what they are saying, they may repeat the words they overhear.

If you have made it a rule that you do not swear in your home—or at least do not swear in front of the kids—you may feel stressed or worried if your young child happens to hear other people swearing.

But, Dr. David advises that you should remain calm and avoid overreacting or making a big deal out of what they just heard. The same goes for when younger kids repeat words that they heard at school.

Jennie David, PhD

Having a big reaction communicates to the child that the curse words get a big response, and the child will be more likely to keep saying the word, whether or not they understand what the word means.

— Jennie David, PhD

"Having a big reaction communicates to the child that the curse words get a big response, and the child will be more likely to keep saying the word, whether or not they understand what the word means," she says.

Kristen Souza, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor based in Florida, suggests ignoring the curse words that other people say in front of your child and not drawing too much attention to the situation. An exception to this is when you think the situation might be a teachable moment, or your child is having an emotional response.

"If your child is having an emotional response, I would name the feeling the other [person] is probably experiencing, 'okaying' the feeling, and then call out the disrespectful behavior, which is swearing," she says. "I would then model an appropriate way to handle the same exact situation to the child."

As kids get older, they may swear because it is something their friend group does, or they may swear to try to impress others. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that during middle childhood and early adolescence, swearing is developmentally normal. Fortunately, as kids grow and mature, the use of profanity loses its appeal and many will stop doing it.

How to Explain Profanity to Kids

Because language is complex, it is important to work with your child from an early age to establish that there are many words that they may hear or read that can be hurtful to other people. Whether those words are swears, or other hurtful things like hate speech, racial slurs, or even bullying comments about weight or intelligence, kids need to learn early on that some phrases are offensive or can cause other people pain.

"Words matter, and words can be incredibly powerful," Dr. David says. "Work with your child to...[establish] that you are a trusted resource, and that you can learn about words together."

Kristen Souza, LMHC

It’s important to explain to your children that profanity is a choice; however, profanity is widely frowned upon and may deem as offensive to certain people.

— Kristen Souza, LMHC

"It’s important to explain to your children that profanity is a choice; however, profanity is widely frowned upon and may deem as offensive to certain people," Souza says. "If profanity is a hard no in your home, make sure to implement a firm boundary with your child."

Take a moment to calmly talk about word choice. For instance, Dr. David suggests saying something like: “Words can be complicated and you may have heard that word on a show, but this word actually is very hurtful to certain people and is not an appropriate word/phrase for us to use. Instead, let’s think about other words to use to really express what you’re trying to say.”

It's also important to help your child understand empathy, and how swear words may make others feel, she adds. Make sure they know that people different have different comfort levels. For instance, you might say: "When we use those swear words, people we care about may feel sad and hurt, so we want to use kind words with people around us."

What to Do When Your Child Swears

How you approach swearing with your child will depend a lot on how old your child is, the discussions you have had, and the rules you’ve already established. But, generally speaking, if you want to communicate that using swear words is not an appropriate choice and can be hurtful to others, Dr. David recommends approaching your child's word usage with thoughtfulness. Here are some tips on what you can do when your child swears.

Remain Calm

While it can be hard to do, Dr. David advises that you remain calm and try to stay neutral when your child uses a swear word or says something else that is inappropriate. Having a big reaction may have the opposite effect of what you are trying to accomplish.

"[Instead], reflect back to your child that a difficult word was used and gently remind them that these words carry a lot of power," she says.

Explain the Meaning

Sometimes kids, especially little kids, do not understand the words they are using. They also may not grasp the impact of what they are saying. For this reason, you should use the opportunity to teach them about the meaning behind what they said and how it can affect others, says Souza.

Be patient as you talk with them and be willing to answer their questions. Young kids in particular are usually just testing out words they have overheard and have no idea what they are actually saying. Use these opportunities to teach them what words mean, and why certain words can be hurtful.

Offer Alternatives

Sometimes it is helpful to to explore other alternatives when kids use swear words, says Souza. Get creative and think of fun words or phrases they could use instead. For instance, some people might say things like: "Oh, good gravy," "Fiddlesticks," "Cheese and rice," or "God bless America" in place of cursing. Find what works for your family.

"The key is to model an alternative...way to express what they’re trying to say," she says.

Establish Family Guidelines

If you want to make swearing off-limits in your home or in certain social situations, it is important to set some guidelines for your kids. Make sure they know which words are off limits and why. You also may want to determine consequences for using swear words if your child is older, or if their usage of swear words is becoming a pattern.

"Get down to eye-level and have a respectful conversation [about word choice and what you expect]," suggests Souza.

Kids need boundaries and rules so that they know what is appropriate. This does not mean that they won't test those boundaries or even defy your family rules. The key is to ensure they know what is expected when it comes to their word choice—even if they do not always follow your guidelines.

Explore the Feelings Behind the Words

When your child swears, it can be helpful to gently explore what they are trying to say, says Dr. David. Is your child trying to express something nuanced or something they don’t know the words for?

"Pulling out your phone and asking your child to choose the emoji that describes how they are feeling...can be a useful start," she says. "You can also try to reflect back what they said with a twist: 'Thank you for telling me about your school day. I noticed you used a word that we’ve talked about before and how this can be hurtful to other people. It sounds like maybe you were trying to share that you were really upset?'"

It is important to help kids label what they are feeling, adds Souza. Consider emphasizing that all feelings are OK, but all behaviors might not be. In other words, it is OK to be angry, but it is not OK to swear when you are angry.

Model Word Choices

As a parent, you have a huge impact on your child's behaviors based on what you are modeling for them. For this reason, it is very important that you consider your own word choices in different situations. Aim to use words that you hope your kids will emulate.

"Modeling respectful language to your child is the most powerful way you can discourage swearing," says Souza. "Reinforce respectful language through praise, and coach children when they need help expressing themselves."

How to Encourage Respectful Language

When it comes to teaching your child about appropriate word choice, being proactive when you hear curse words in public or on TV can go a long way in helping your child choose the right words. Rather than focusing on the fact that using swear words is wrong and something your child should not do, try encouraging respectful language instead.

"Telling a child to not do something may make them more curious about trying it," Dr. David explains. "When your child uses respectful language, give your child a labeled praise like: 'Wow, you used very kind language; I’m proud of you!'"

Using labeled praise connects the "good job" with the specific skill or behavior, and helps increase the likelihood that behavior will continue over time, she adds. Some examples of things you could say to promote the use of respectful language include: "Way to go being gentle with your words," "Thank you for expressing yourself calmly," or “I like how you used a kind word."

"Lastly, be extra-thoughtful about the words you use around your child, and if you use a curse word, pause and model aloud how to adjust," says Dr. David. "You could say something like: 'Oh goodness, I used a word by accident that can be one of those harmful words. Let me try again and use another kinder word that says what I mean.'"

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to swearing, many kids—especially young kids—are just trying words on for size. They are curious about how these words are used and the reaction they elicit from others around them. The best way to approach cursing or the use of inappropriate language is to use these situations as coachable moments.

Talk to your kids about how their word choice can impact the people around them. Encourage empathy and promote words that empower and build people up. You can also look for creative words or phrases to use in place of swear words. And, most importantly, model the type of word choice you want your child to make.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Swearing.

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. What to do when your child swears.

  3. Penn State Extension. Inappropriate language- When children use "bad words".

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.