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My son has started swearing. Is this a sign of trouble ahead?

Swearing–the use of profanity or "dirty'' words–is almost a developmentally normal behavior for children during middle childhood and early adolescence. For these youngsters, swearing is often a sign of being worldly-wise and unafraid to be a little "bad." Profanity is used to impress friends and can become a part of peer relationships. Quite frequently, younger children do not know the meanings of the words they are using, but they will say them anyway simply because they have heard others use them.

Fortunately, this phenomenon of cursing seems to lose its attraction and abate as children become more mature. Until then, however, youngsters often delight in shocking their parents with the swear words they have learned away from home. (Bear in mind that parents who swear in the home are teaching their children to do the same and should not be surprised when their youngsters copy their behavior.)

Clearly, there is a smaller group of "incorrigible" children who swear. In addition to cursing, they have many other difficulties, personally and socially. These youngsters may be more prone to swear and rage at other people–a different phenomenon than using a few swear words during times of frustration. Profanity directed at another individual should never be tolerated.

What Parents Can Do

Here are some suggestions to help you manage the problem of swearing:

  • If you feel it is appropriate, establish a rule that "no swearing will take place in our home." Do not under any circumstances tolerate swearing that is aimed at someone in anger. If this occurs, a child may be sent immediately to her room for a timeout.

  • Minor swearing in frustration is almost a natural human behavior. Although perhaps inappropriate, it is commonplace in some families. If that is your own personal style, you will find it hard to teach your child something different.

  • When your youngster swears, do not overreact with your own outbursts of rage and cursing. Also, washing a child's mouth out with soap is clearly improper, extreme and ineffective.

  • On occasion, you may feel that your child is using profanity in an attempt to provoke a response from you. In these instances, ignoring her may be the most effective strategy.

  • Reward your child for expressing her frustration appropriately without swearing. Star charts and money are helpful approaches. For example, use a jar of nickels that she can earn at the end of two weeks; for each day that she doesn't swear during this time, two additional nickels will be placed in the jar; but each time she swears, nickels will be removed. Your child will catch on quickly.

When To Seek Additional Help

In and of itself, swearing is not a sign of emotional disturbance. However, if there are other problems–chronic lying, chronic stealing, or difficulty with peers–than swearing may be just another symptom of a psychological or social disturbance. In this situation, talk to your pediatrician about counseling - either individual or family therapy.

Additional Information:

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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