- Where do swear words come from?
- Why do adults swear?
- At what age should you start swearing?
- Why do children swear?
- How do I stop my child swearing?
- How do you punish a child for swearing?
Swear words, expletives, profanities and taboos exist in every language, they are unavoidable, but when is it appropriate for children to understand what they mean? And how should we respond when they use them? Let’s take a look at the science behind swear words, why they exist in our vocabularies, the best way to deal with child swearing and how to discipline a swearing child. 🤬
Where do swear words come from?
Words are just an arrangement of sounds in our mouths or letters on a page – they are not intrinsically offensive – but swear words possess a specific power and connotation. Deemed impolite or rude, they stand out in our vocabularies with their unique ability to offend those around us.
Social settings, relationships and cultural expectations all play a part in deciphering how offensive each word can be but how have expletives come to exist in our languages and are there any patterns around the world? 🌍
A closer look at swear words across several cultures reveals that they can be divided into two main categories; firstly we have the "deistic" – those related to religion, and secondly the "visceral" – those related to the body. Both strands have a set of emotional implications which is what gives the swear words their power. Deistic words are associated with fear and awe while visceral words bring about feelings of disgust and shame. 😳
It is when the emotional significance behind a word becomes inexplicably linked with its phonetic sound that it becomes dangerous, offensive and banished to the realms of profanity for good.
Why do adults swear?
The use of swear words can often be put down to lazy language or a simple lapse in civility but given that most of us do it, perhaps there is a more nuanced way to look at the role of profanity in our lives.
For example, swearing can be connected with confidence and self-esteem – empowering us to take control over a bad situation. It can be a useful, non-violent tool in moments of retribution, allowing us to express anger without inflicting harm. It also broadens our register and helps us to emphasise points that we feel are particularly important. ❗
Among friends, swearing can be a sign that we have dropped our guard and feel comfortable or relaxed. It can help us to restore perspective on a certain person or situation and cement social bonds signalling that we are open, genuine, self-deprecating and easy-going. 😌
Richard Stephens, a behavioural psychologist working from Keele University, has even suggested that swearing increases our pain threshold. Debunking the theory that swearing in response to physical injury makes it worse, he found that on average, participants in his study could withstand the pain of holding their hand in icy water for up to 50 percent longer when swearing than when using a neutral word. 🧊
At what age should you start swearing?
It seems a strange question to ask ourselves – at what age should a child start swearing? – but as learning about swear words is an unavoidable part of growing up, it’s important to have a clear idea of when most children start experimenting with swear words so that you can assess your own child’s situation fairly.
According to Dr Timothy Jay, a psychologist and expert in swearing, swearing first emerges in children by age two; by the time they enter school they have a working vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words; their understanding becomes adult-like by ages 11 or 12. 🚸
How swearing affects children's development
Like them or loathe them, swear words are a part of our language, society and culture. It should go without saying that it is important to protect children from inappropriate exposure to adult themes, behaviour and language, however, some exposure is inevitable and having conversations about swear words early on will help your child to contextualise and comprehend them.
Swear words can create a reaction in the brain’s amygdala – a cluster of almond-shaped cells located near the base of the brain which define and regulate emotions – which explains why young children and adults alike can feel compelled to use bad language as our bodies physically respond when we do. 🧠
As children grow up, they will begin to understand the meaning behind words, the feelings they can provoke and the power of language as a tool for communication. They will learn through watching people’s reactions, your parenting style, listening to intonation and even assessing which words aren’t being used at certain times. So, understanding swear words is an important part of your child’s linguistic and social development. 🗣️
Why do children swear?
We already know that for adults, although swearing is mostly considered rude and potentially offensive, there are some positive associations too. But do the same rules apply when it comes to kids swearing? Whether your child has already said their first swear word or you are hoping to get ahead before they start, the first thing to do is tackle the bigger question of “why is my child cussing?”
There are some important differences to note between little kids swearing and 9-year old swearing. Their motivations and understanding are likely to vary at different developmental stages. 💁
Toddlers and young children 👶
At this age, children are mostly unaware of the meaning and impact of swear words. Instead, they may swear accidentally as they learn new words or imitate others. They might try out a swear word because it sounds funny or have seen that it gets a reaction.
Children aged 5 to 11 🧒
At this age, children are most likely to use swear words as a way to express negative feelings like pain, sadness or frustration. They might also be imitating others or attempting to get a strong reaction from their parents.
12+ and early teens 🧑
At this age, children might associate swearing with social cohesion – helping them to either fit in with a group or to stand out by being funny or more adult-like. Again, they may also be attempting to get a strong reaction from their parents.
How do I stop my child swearing?
It is unrealistic to expect your child to skip the discovery of swear words entirely, however, there are some preventative measures you can take to discourage the overuse of swear words at a young age. Take the time to consider what you personally feel is appropriate so that you can establish your own ground rules and expectations as a family. 👪
The most successful methods of prevention are to act as a role model by avoiding the use of swear words in front of your children as well as removing their access to inappropriate media, television and games. 🎮
Swearing mostly happens at times of increased emotional intensity. Use these moments to model how to express feelings appropriately. Try naming the emotion and saying something like, “I feel really annoyed or cross”. Also, make sure to praise your child when you notice them dealing well with negative emotions. This positive reinforcement will gently encourage them away from the use of bad language.
How do you punish a child for swearing?
So, the time has come – your child has leapt off the deep end – but what do you do when your child says the F word? It is hard to know what to do when your child swears at you as it can leave you feeling shocked or embarrassed but we are here to reassure you that it is totally normal and there are plenty of ways to respond and discipline your child.
Knowing why your child has sworn is the first step in understanding how best to respond.
Swearing accidentally 🙊
Sometimes your child might innocently mispronounce a word like “kitty” or “truck”. Although these slip-ups can be amusing, it’s best to try to limit your reaction so that your child doesn’t do it again for attention. Instead, just try to gently correct the pronunciation and move on.
Swearing for attention 🙄
If your child has discovered that swearing gets a strong reaction from you, they will be tempted to try it again. In this situation, it is best to stay calm, avoid eye contact and try not to laugh or get angry. Remove the appeal by showing them that swear words will get no reaction at all.
If you think your child is ready, it may also be worth explaining what some of the words actually mean. Clarifying the true meaning of a swear word in a matter-of-fact way will increase emotional intelligence and might be enough to make them stop using it.
Swearing to express negative emotion 😠
Your child may have witnessed swear words being used at times of frustration or anger. In this situation, try to encourage your child to name the emotion instead. Make sure they know that their feelings are valid but that they need to be communicated in a way that isn’t rude or offensive.
It might also be worth teaching your child about emotional self-regulation methods – things like mindful breathing, counting to 10 or taking a break.
Swearing to hurt or offend 👿
If your child is older and has deliberately used a swear word to upset someone then it is important to let them know that this is totally unacceptable. Depending on their age, the circumstances and how you generally discipline bad behaviour, you should consider consequences like time out or suspension of privileges.
Most importantly, no matter what age your child is, you should lead by example, praise positive behaviour and explain why swear words are taboo. Discovering expletives is an inevitable part of linguistic and social development. Be sure of your own expectations, communicate them clearly and support your child to understand how swear words should be handled. ✌️