Has your child stumped you by blurting out a bad word, whether innocently or intentionally? Learn how to respond correctly to a child using bad language.
From outright R-rated words to the less offensive, hearing your child say a bad word can feel shocking.
First, you’re surprised, maybe even guilty because there’s a good chance you know where he must’ve picked it up from. Then, you react and discipline him regardless of whether he said it with intention or not.
Other times, he’s not even aware that he said a bad word, but know that he’s triggered something in you based on your reaction. And finally, you cringe hearing an offensive word that sounds so grating to your ears. It’s just not the type of language you expect or prefer to hear coming from him.
How to respond to a child using bad language
My kids have said bad words. The outright horrible ones were said without knowing they were bad. For instance, one of them declared, “What’s a witch that’s a boy?” before blurting the B-word in his clever jubilation. Another saw the F-word out and about and read it aloud, not knowing what it meant.
But other times, I know they’ve picked a word up from me, like when one asked in casual conversation, “What the hell was that?” These aren’t teenagers or even tweens we’re talking about, but little kids who could’ve only mimicked me.
And still at other times, a “bad” word could simply be an offensive one you’d rather they not use or hear. Personally, I stop my kids from saying “stupid,” and they’ve categorized the word “dumb” as a bad one.
As offensive or shocking as it is to hear a child using bad language, avoid jumping to conclusions or strict discipline. Instead, use the moment to teach valuable lessons, different ways to communicate, and the type of language you want your family to use (including ourselves!).
When your child says a bad word, respond correctly and swiftly with the following tips:
1. Respond, don’t (over)react
It’s hard hearing your child using bad language, both the benign but disrespectful to more serious offenders. Our reactions can range from swift discipline to apologizing to everyone within earshot.
But keep your cool and stay calm. If he isn’t aware of what he did wrong, your reaction might scare him. It might even make him feel ashamed of something he doesn’t understand. You can imagine how unfair it is to be disciplined when he doesn’t even know what he did wrong.
Another point? If he sees you react over a word, he might say it more often to get a rouse out of you. He’s now aware that this word carries extra weight and touches a nerve.
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2. Don’t ignore it, either
Another common assumption is to take the opposite approach. You don’t say anything, hoping the silence will prevent your child from saying the bad word any further.
This might work the first time or two. But any more than that, and he might assume that this is an acceptable word to say.
For instance, my son was frustrated with his toys when he exclaimed “Bam!” in a way that sounded like “Damn!” At first I ignored it, trying not to make a big deal. But he’d say it a few other times for the same reasons.
Rather than ignore it completely, I explained why it’s inappropriate to say. We discussed how some words can offend others even if it isn’t his intention, and that it’s best to avoid saying them at all.
3. Help your child find alternatives
Being frustrated is a normal feeling, but perhaps your child can use a less offensive word to express how he feels.
For instance, my son huffed a loud “Jesus!” when he felt frustrated with a set of building toys he was trying to create. I knew full well where he picked that up from (more on that later). First, I acknowledged that he felt upset, but told him not to say that word because it can be offensive to others.
Then, I offered alternatives that are less grating, like “sheesh” or “darn.” He also doesn’t even have to say anything at all and instead take a few deep breaths or ask for help. Sometimes, kids simply need alternatives to words we don’t want them to say.
4. Tell others not to swear around your kids
Do other adults yell expletives left and right, often within hearing shot of your child? Make sure they know not to say those words around him.
You can do this with humor or even blame it on your own “crazy parenting.” Kids hearing adults who curse will think this is normal. They learn best from watching what others do, not what they’re told to avoid.
Which brings me to…
5. Watch your own cursing
I knew all too well where the expressions (even if not the outright expletives) came from when my kids would say “Jesus,” “Bam,” or “hell.”
When flustered, I’d mutter an expletive under my breath and hope they didn’t hear. Though I’m pretty good about staying away from them, the bad words still slip out once in a while.
Since hearing them mimic my own bad habits, I’m more aware when reacting to situations and using bad words. It’s just something I can’t keep doing.
If cursing is a mainstay in your vocabulary, tone it down or find more appropriate words to say instead. Control your reactions so you have a few seconds to consider the situation before saying a bad word.
6. Admit if you do it too
If your child happens to call you out with an honest, “But you say it too!”, fess up and admit it. Acknowledge that you slipped and also need to work on it. Better yet, thank him for pointing it out and reminding you.
Admitting your faults won’t lessen your authority. Instead, you’ll reiterate that these family values apply to everyone, not just kids. And confessing will make you more committed to setting a better example.
Hearing a child using bad language can trigger many emotions, from shock to guilt. Curb his use of bad words by responding, not reacting, when he does. At the same time, don’t ignore it either, as he might assume that it’s okay to keep saying them (whether he knows they’re “bad” or not).
Give him more appropriate words to use that aren’t offensive. Then, stop other adults from saying bad words around him, including yourself. And if he calls you out on your own use of bad words, admit your wrongdoing and pledge to do better.
Talking about bad words makes sure you address their use before the issue gets worse—even if it starts off as innocent as “Bam!”
Get more tips:
- Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It
- How to Respond when Your Child Makes a Mistake
- Stop Nagging Your Child to Get Stuff Done
- Teach Gratitude to Children So They’re Thankful for What They Have
- How to Respond to Your Child’s Hurtful Words
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