How to Appropriately Discipline a Child for Swearing

Letting your child swear sends the wrong message.
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It’s normal for kids to swear at one time or another. Young kids will often repeat something they’ve heard. Older kids often want to test their parents’ reactions. If your child has started using a few choice words, there are several discipline techniques you can use to curb their use of inappropriate language.

Think About Your Family Values

Your family values will play a big role in deciding how to respond to swear words. For some families, swearing is not a big deal and parents accept that kids are likely to use curse words. For families who are particularly offended by swearing, it's important to address the problem right away.

Either way, talk to your child about how different people have different values. While you might not find swearing offensive, some people do. If your family doesn't swear, make sure that your child knows that even though they might overhear curse words from other people, that doesn't mean it aligns with your family's values.

Consider the Reason

When deciding how to address swearing, look at the possible reasons for your child's choice of words. How and where the swear word was used is important. A 5-year-old repeating a word that they heard on the bus is very different from a 15-year-old swearing at a teacher.

Sometimes kids swear because they lack important life skills, such as social and communication skills. If that's the case, it's important to teach your child those skills right away. Otherwise, there could be lifelong consequences.

Adults who lack social skills or impulse control skills could be fired from a job for using inappropriate language. They could also experience relationship problems if they offend others with their words. If you think swearing is a symptom of a bigger problem, such as a lack of anger management skills, teach those skills as part of your discipline strategy.

Be a Good Role Model

Consider the type of behavior that you are modeling for your child. If you swear, your child probably will too. Telling your child, “These are adult words so I can say them but you can't,” isn't enough to address the problem. Kids want to be like grown-ups and will copy what you do.

If you’ve been a little relaxed with your language and your child has picked up swearing, the first line of defense should be to change your own language. If you model how to handle anger and express yourself without cursing, your child will learn how to do that as well.

Look at other ways that your child might be exposed to inappropriate language, such as in movies or video games. Limit what they are exposed to if you want to clean up their language.

Ignore It If Your Child Wants Attention

Kids will often repeat behavior that gains a lot of attention. If you laugh or make a big deal out of a curse word, it’s pretty much guaranteed your child will say it again.

Ignoring the behavior can be a good strategy to start with, especially for young children. If the swear word gets repeated, despite ignoring it, explain that it’s not a nice word and that it shouldn’t be used anymore.

Establish Rules About Swearing

If swearing becomes a problem, it may be necessary to create a household rule to address it. A rule that says, “Use appropriate language,” can help.

Kids may need a warning and reminders about what constitutes “appropriate.” Other parents might want a rule that says, “Swearing can only be done quietly in your bedroom so that no one else hears.”

Provide Consequences

If you’ve created a rule about swearing and it continues to happen, a negative consequence may be necessary. If your child swears when they are angry, a time-out can be a good way to teach them how to calm down before they say something that will get them into trouble.

A “swear jar” is another means of discipline. This requires anyone in the house to put a certain amount of money—such as a quarter—into the jar after each offense. This only works if you have kids who have money already and will be impacted by having to give some of it away.

Think carefully about what to do with the money. Don't use the swear jar money to fund your family vacation. If your kids know the money is going toward something fun, they'll be more likely to swear so they can contribute to the cause.

Although donating the money to charity may seem like a good idea at first, it may send the wrong message to kids. “We help others by swearing,” might not be what you want kids to take from the exercise. Instead, you might want to use the funds to go toward something like household bills.

Offer Rewards

Another discipline option is to offer your child rewards for using appropriate language. A child who gets into trouble at school or who tends to swear at people when they are angry may benefit from a formal reward system that rewards them for using appropriate language.

A token economy system can also be a great way to motivate kids to use kind words and appropriate language throughout the day.

Your long-term goal should be to teach your child that their language affects others. If they swear at someone or at the wrong time, it could have serious consequences.

1 Source
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Swearing.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.