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When a Child Uses Bad Language

see also: What to do when a child uses dirty language

It's shocking to hear your child swear and even worse when it's directed at you. How do you put an end to  this behavior? The first step in correcting the problem is to try to determine its cause: 

The Parrot   When kids hear adults swear it's always in an attention getting tone of voice. People react. Emotions are on high. The air crackles with static. Kids try out cuss words to see if they can create the same atmosphere and get the same kind of imagined respect. Younger kids are just acting like a parrot; If a parent cursed over the phone when their child was in earshot, they shouldn’t be surprised if they hear their child repeating the same choice words in the near future.

Bathroom Talk Toilet-training time often sees the emergence of  “potty talk.” Suddenly a child finds it very entertaining to say things like, “I’ll flush you down the pot,” or an endless repetition of the word "poop." They find amusement in indulging in gross talk about their bowel movement or body parts, especially at the dinner table. 

To get attention Once a child uses a bad word and gets a startled and immediate response from the adults around him he realizes what a powerful tool it can be. They soon realize that one surefire way of attracting attention is by using swear words. More often than not, they have no idea what they’re talking about or the contexts in which they use the words. They know that these ‘naughty words’ have shock value and that’s good enough. However, in the case of the older child, say somewhere between the age of 6 and 10, their use of profanity is a little harder to take. Somehow, it’s not so easy to excuse. You feel that children this age know very well the meaning of the words they are using and are saying them deliberately to be mean and hurtful. In a sense, that is a fair assumption. Children this age usually use bad language for revenge or to gain control.
To prove independence. Kids are trying to prove they are separate from you, and that you don't control everything about them. Since you can't possibly control what comes out of their mouths this is an area where they may rebel.
To gain peer acceptance. Kids want to be accepted by their peers. Often, swearing is seen as "cool," so cursing is just a way for a kid to try to fit in with the crowd.
To mimic what they see on TV or in the movies. Kids are easily affected by their environment. If they have a "role-model" who curses, they will sure enough try it themselves.

Useful tips that will help control the use of bad language by your child.


  • Be careful about the language you use in front of your child.
  • Find out from whom he is picking up this language and restrict his socializing with such companions (even if it is a grandparent).
  • Be firm and tell him that such language is not acceptable.
  • Don’t laugh and discourage your friends and family from laughing when he says a bad word. He will interpret laughter as encouragement.
  • Try not to react at all. Maintain a poker face. If he can’t get a rise out of you, he will soon tire of these antics. While it is very hard to stay calm when your child is using profanity, try to convey your hurt and anger to him in a calm manner. Avoid washing their mouth out with soap: this only makes the child more angry and he/she will plot for a way to get back at you!
  • If your child continues to use swear words despite your ignoring him, leave the room. If you are in a public place, both of you should leave.
  • Set calm limits. Often, a parent's shocked response will actually encourage a child to repeat foul language. A simple, calm approach works better, "Tom, that is not a word children use. You may say "oh drat" instead." If the child persists, choose a quiet time to express your feelings, and set specific limits. Outline the future consequences for bad language (removal of a favorite toy, no TV for a night, etc.) - and follow through next time it happens.
  • Teach acceptable alternatives. Some kids have a hard time understanding and expressing their angry feelings. Their lack of wisdom leads them to believe they are the only ones who ever feel this way, and that their feelings are wrong or bad. It helps kids when we allow them their angry feelings, even as we set limits on their behavior. As an example, when a kid is crying over a punishment, how many parents offer to "Give you something to cry for"? But the kid already has a good reason to be unhappy! A better response might be, "You're welcome to be angry at me - up in your room with the door closed." If the child then stomps off to his room don't yell at him for doing so! It's a healthy way for him to express his feelings. 
  • Praise good behavior. When your child responds to her anger in an appropriate way make sure you acknowledge it. (Not at the point of anger, but later on!) "I noticed that when you were mad at your brother you told him how you felt in proper words and went to your room to cool off - that was very mature and responsible!"
  • In the case of the older child, make an effort to find out what is bothering him and when you do help him to find other ways of releasing his pent-up emotions.

posted 1-9-03 on and adapted from an article by child educator Elizabeth Pantley


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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