There’s perhaps nothing more horrifying than the first time you hear your angelic babe utter the word: f**k.
You start to reason that maybe you simply misheard them, or perhaps they were trying to say duck and got in a bit of a tangle?
No, who are you kidding... It was definitely uttered in the way only a swear word would be uttered. But where have they picked it up from? Was it that time you shouted at someone for cutting you up on the motorway? Or the time their dad cried ‘for f**k’s sake’ after burning the bottom of his favourite pan?
So many possibilities. This is it, you think, I’ve created a monster.
With swearing on the rise in society – six in 10 people say strong language, such as the F word, is part of their daily lives, according to a survey by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – it’s not unusual for kids to utter the odd expletive. Sometimes it’ll be accidental, other times it’ll be deliberate. But it’s how you react that can determine whether they’ll do it again and again.
Here, therapists and child behaviour experts walk us through how to tackle swearing depending on your kid’s age.
If your toddler curses
So we’ve established that you’ve probably sworn at some point and your toddler has heard the word, thought it sounded great and repeated it – possibly (much to your delight) more than once.
First of all, be kind to yourself, says Amanda Macdonald, a counsellor and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). “It happens, and for a child it is part of being in real life that they are going to hear words that aren’t always ideal.”
If you hear them swearing, therapists wholeheartedly agree it’s best not to react. This is because any reaction – whether positive (in the form of laughing) or negative (in the form of scolding) – can result in your child figuring out that this is a way for them to get attention, meaning they’ll probably do it again.
“All they are doing is learning the words around them and repeating what they hear,” says Chris Boobier, a counsellor and member of Counselling Directory. “They have no understanding what meaning the word has, so aren’t doing anything wrong or have any intention behind it.
“If you are able to keep a straight face, not react, not laugh or show frustration or anger and just carry on as usual, the likelihood is your toddler won’t say this again if they don’t keep hearing that swear word.”
If it’s not a one-off and a family member keeps swearing, meaning your toddler is continuously copying them, you might want to address it with your family member before you do anything else, adds Macdonald. Then you can speak to your toddler and gently explain in very simple terms that it’s not a good word to use, and that the person who said it made a mistake by saying it.
If your school age child learns swear words
As your child grows and starts going to school and on playdates, they’ll likely start hearing obscenities from other children and possibly even their older siblings and parents. They might then come home and repeat what they’ve heard, leaving you either amused or aghast – or both.
If this happens, therapists recommend explaining to your child in a calm way why it’s not ok to say those words. Sometimes you might want to explain what the words mean, but in an age appropriate way, and discuss how rude, insulting or hurtful these words can be for other people.
You could explain that swear words are not well-received by teachers and people in other social settings, or even that even adults shouldn’t really say those words at work.
In this instance it’s all about being gently curious about what it is your child is trying to communicate. Are they angry? Bored? Frustrated? Or just trying to be funny? Once you’ve determined this, try to find a different word to use in that context instead. “You could think of some funny and silly words to use that are personal to you as a family, or simply replace the ‘S word’ for sugar, for example,” says school and family therapist LJ Jones.
“Remember, children learn these words and use them to try and communicate – they are not trying to be rude or hurtful, they are just developing their verbal skills and imitation is a huge part of development.
“Whether you find it funny or frightening, it is crucial not to overreact!”
If your teen is swearing like a trooper
When it comes to teens, things can get a bit more tricky – swearing becomes a way to feel cool and empowered, and show off to their friends. “Teens are looking to assert their independence, but they can also have so much going on with their own pressures at school, friendships and their own identity,” says Macdonald, “so being able to let off some steam can help.”
That said, you still need to set some boundaries if you don’t like them swearing in your home. The goal, says Macdonald, is to be able to let your teen know in a calm moment why swearing is not OK for you.
“Be aware that your teen is a fellow human, and swearing may be a way of them wanting to communicate just how things are for them, so not shutting them down but instead opening up,” she explains.
“Give them the space to hear why you don’t feel OK hearing them swear, but also hear their own thoughts about what it was that caused them to swear.”
It’s not going to music to your ears, but Jones says it’s probably going to be difficult – sometimes even impossible – to stop your teen from swearing full stop. “But what you can do is at least educate them on why it is important that they know how to conduct themselves appropriately and respectfully in public,” she says, “and what expectations you have as a parent and within your home.”
Simply demanding that your teen stops swearing probably won’t work – and might actually just result in them shutting down, or rebelling further, suggests Jones.
“A positive approach would be to set the standards for your home in a more fun way, such as a ‘swear jar’ or ‘no swearing zone’, or to even implement incentives,” she adds.
And if you’re a bit of a potty mouth yourself, you can’t really expect your teen to keep it squeaky clean.
“Teens are known to believe that parents and other adults do not usually ‘practice what they preach’,” adds Jones, “so it can be useful for parents to discourage swearing by vowing to tackle their own use of swear words.”