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Do you have a kid who curses when they get upset? I’ve known some really sweet kids who, when they are upset, say unbelievable things — using words that their parents are pretty sure they have never used themselves. If you’ve got a kid like this, it can be incredibly embarrassing when your kid lets loose, especially when it’s in public!

Why Do People Swear?

Swearing is a basic biological response used by creatures who have language. This article by Emma Byrne in National Geographic [subscription required after 3 free articles] notes that chimpanzees who are learning sign language start swearing surprisingly early on in the language acquisition process. It also notes that swearing allows us to endure pain for longer, and can serve as a social bonding experience. (More on that below.) The vocabulary of swearing involves taboo topics (especially sex & toileting) and carries so much power in part because those topics are forbidden.

Drs. Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz study the science of swearing, and note that:

“…instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, more meaningful information about swearing can be obtained by asking what communication goals swearing achieves. Swear words can achieve a number of outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression.”

Cursing is a more socially acceptable response than hitting. That said, it doesn’t feel very socially acceptable when your 9-year old lets loose with words you would never dare to say. If you can reframe their behavior as stress management and/or a cry for help, it may help you feel a little better about what you are hearing.

Is Swearing Normal?

Swearing is not all that unusual. As mentioned above, it’s a natural mode of communication.  Drs. Jay and Janschewitz state:

“Parents often wonder if this behavior is normal and how they should respond to it. Our data show that swearing emerges by age two and becomes adult-like by ages 11 or 12. By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words….  We do not know exactly how children learn swear words, although this learning is an inevitable part of language learning, and it begins early in life…. Younger children are likely to use milder offensive words than older children and adults, whose [vocabulary] may include more strongly offensive terms and words with more nuanced social and cultural meanings.”

I remember in fourth grade when my best friend Ginger and I noticed that a lot of our friends were swearing. We decided to come up with alternative swear words that weren’t offensive. We came up with phrases like cabbage head and carrot nose. We spent many hours during recess making up less-offensive insults that made us giggle.

What are the Social Implications of Swearing?

In addition to making jokes and stories funnier, and serving as a form of stress management, cursing is also used as a way to bond with others. If you do it properly, it signals trust and connection. The National Geographic article says,

“…swearing has such an emotional impact. You’re demonstrating that you have a sophisticated theory of mind about the person that you’re talking to, and that you have worked out where the limit is between being shocking enough to make them giggle or notice you’ve used it but not so shocking that they’ll be mortally offended. That’s a hard target to hit right in the bullseye. Using swear words appropriate for that person shows how well you know them; and how well you understand their mental model.”

Ms. Byrne also touches on the use of cursing on the internet and how you can’t see the impact of your words on the listener when your communication is through text.

As kids get older, they notice that their peers are cursing when kidding around with each other, and that the people who are connecting this way seem to have a deep affinity for each other. If someone has trouble understanding the social cues they are getting from others in response to what they are saying (and how they are saying it), it will be incredibly difficult for them to figure out how to curse appropriately. I’ve known kids in high school who start cursing indiscriminately because they crave that deep connection they see between other peers. Of course, cursing without observing the social rules of how to do it rarely has the intended effect. As Drs. Jay and Janschewitz observed:

Whether or not children (and adults) swear, we know that they do acquire a contextually-bound swearing etiquette — the appropriate ‘who, what, where, and when’ of swearing. This etiquette determines the difference between amusing and insulting….”

What do you do with a child who is swearing inappropriately?  The first step is to figure out the purpose of the swearing.

  • Is the kid overwhelmed and dysregulated? When kids don’t have the language skills to express themselves, they may resort to expressing themselves using what I call verbal vomit. Just as nauseous people feel physically better after they vomit, dysregulated people feel better after cursing. This is true even for kids who have good language skills. We all have more difficulty expressing ourselves we are are overwhelmed. The solution here is three-fold.
    • Help the child get regulated. This might mean removing them from the situation that triggered the response, empathizing with them so they know you understand, or even co-regulating with them so they can connect with you. In this context, co-regulation involves communicating in a way that acknowledges the child’s distress — with warmth, a soothing tone of voice, or supportive silence. By borrowing your calm, your child will (eventually) learn how to self-regulate.
    • Anticipate future situations that will dysregulate your child, and plan for how to navigate those situations in a supportive way.
    • Teach your children different ways of expressing themselves. If they say, “You @#$%s make me want to kill myself!” you can respond by using language that conveys the intensity of their feelings without using curse words. Some kids appreciate offers of help (others don’t, so customize your approach to your kid).  For example, you can say something like, “Yikes! You are incredibly angry at us. We want to help.” Using this simple declarative statement puts no pressure on the child to respond, while also conveying that you are open to their ideas about what will be helpful. [NOTE: The emphasis should not be on getting your child to talk. They can’t talk or think clearly when they are dysregulated. The emphasis should be on helping them re-regulate.]
  • Is the kid trying to connect with their peers? If your child seems to be cursing a lot when they are with their peers, evaluate whether it is well-received. Watch the peers to see if they are cursing as well and having a good time.
    • If not, you may want to coach your child to avoid cursing around others until they are able to understand the ‘who, what, where, and when’ of swearing.
  • Is the child cursing when communicating entirely by text? (e.g., on social media, Discord, or text messages) This is a case where you really need to know your audience.
    • Some online communities use shockingly foul language. If that seems to be the norm, your child is probably doing exactly what they need to do to fit in. (You may want to consider whether that is a healthy community for them to be a part of, but that’s another discussion entirely.)
    • If it is not the norm for that community, you may need to have a conversation with your child about not cursing until they understand how to do it in a socially appropriate way.

Do you have a kid like this? What have you done that helped? Help other parents by posting your comments below.

Do you need help with  your child? Sarah Wayland can help you figure out how to support your child via classesSpecial Needs Care Navigation services, Parent Coaching, or as your certified Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) consultant.