Swearing Toddler

How to React to a Swearing Toddler

7 March 2021
Posted by: Chelsea

There’s a fair chance that, sooner or later, you’re going to be shocked by your toddler suddenly using foul language.

That might be a single word or perhaps an entire sentence or two.

This calls for gentle but positive action.

Why do toddlers swear?

In fact, many don’t but quite a few do. They learn the words or sentences from:

  • other children;
  • other adults outside of the home who they might have heard swearing and cursing;
  • TV, video games, some pop songs;
  • older siblings or parental example.

Toddlers are at an age where every other word is new to them. They’re desperately keen to learn new words, use them and of course, to attract attention and praise for doing so.

Swear words and obscenities to a toddler are no different to any other word. They can’t intuitively sense that these shouldn’t be used and they need to be taught that.

Intentional or not?

When bad language comes out of your child’s mouth, initially in most cases they probably don’t know what it means. You’ll be able to sense that, often because they have used the words in the wrong context etc. Of course, kids are brilliant listeners and imitators, so their context may be perfect even if they haven’t a clue what the words mean.

In other cases, you’ll sense that the child may very well understand that they’re saying something “naughty”. It may be that they’ll use the words in the correct context and they’re often swearing in order to get attention. That might be because they think it will amuse you, make them seem clever or simply because it’s a way of playing up so you’ll pay attention.

These two situations need to be handled slightly differently.

Exploratory swearing

This arises when your child has heard some new words and wants to experiment with them. Here is our top advice:

  • you can probably safely ignore the first instance or two. Children learn, use and drop vast amounts of language from one day to the next. They may never use the word again;
  • don’t react by being shocked, angry or amused. All of these signs may indicate to your child that they have just said something ‘clever’ that’s guaranteed to get your interest and attention;
  • if your child continues to swear, apply the usual practices of saying ‘no’ and explaining that it’s bad. In the case of younger toddlers, you don’t need to worry about in-depth explanations as to what the word really means because they’ll be unlikely to understand it anyway. If that sounds old-fashioned, remember that we don’t think our children need to have electromagnetic theory explained to them before telling them not to touch electrical outlets.

Cognizant swearing

Older toddlers and early school-age children may be more fully aware of what they’re doing and using the words perfectly correctly, even if they might not understand their full meaning and definition.

In these cases:

  • never simply ignore your child’s swearing. In older toddlers, apparent parental indifference can be misinterpreted as approval;
  • look at the context and try to identify your child’s intention. Were they trying to be amusing or shocking? Were they just seeking to show you how ‘advanced’ they are? The answer to this might influence your subsequent approach;
  • discuss the issues with them. Explain that this is bad language that upsets you and might upset others. Stress that it is not funny or clever. Make this the focus of your approach and stress that the words are ‘bad’. Avoid recriminations and sanctions if at all possible;
  • it is a judgement call for each parent about how much of an explanation to give as to why a word is ‘bad’. A lot will depend upon the age and maturity of the child but keep in mind that he or she will be very curious on that point.

Most younger children are very keen to please their parents, so these approaches usually work.

It is exceptionally rare but it may be necessary to seek professional advice if your toddler appears to be unable to control their swearing where they know such is both bad and against your wishes.

More Resources – 
What to do if Your Child Uses “Potty Mouth” Language

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