When children's cursing changes from "stupid" or "jerk" to worse words, it can be disconcerting. Parents and caregivers can feel helpless or angry in the face of such behavior, but there is hope. Once you discover your child's motivation for using bad language, some basic behavioral and communication techniques can make a profound, long-term difference.
Before you can stop cursing in its tracks, you have to identify potential reasons for why it is happening. According to licensed therapist Judith Tanzer, "The age group is important. I think little children, up to age five or so, imitate those around them, older siblings and parents." Younger children may not know the meaning of what they say, but they notice the reaction they get when they swear. Tanzer continues, "Older children may swear or curse to be cool and to be in with peers." This motivation to use inappropriate language, while developmentally appropriate, requires a different course of action.
Tanzer recommends parents and caregivers begin with basic behavior modification strategies to curb cursing in young children. The first strategy entails ignoring the cursing. Doing so may grate on your nerves but Tanzer says that "inattention may influence its decrease."
If the cursing continues or gets worse, Tanzer advises, "I think a reward system works best." Reward your child for using positive language or expressing his emotions in a healthy way. You and your child can brainstorm positive ways to express frustration or anger, which may include talking about what happens, drawing a picture of the problem or taking a break with a book or toy.
When giving rewards for positive expressions of emotion, keep them simple. Some possibilities include a sticker on a chart, an extra five minutes of play before bedtime or playing a round of a favorite game with mommy and daddy. Giving small but meaningful rewards makes it easier for you to stick to your behavior plan.
For older children who are cursing, employing a basic reward system may not get to the root of the problem. Tanzer says, "Anger and suppression of other feelings is probably the cause. I think swearing is a shorthand way of saying things that a child can't or does not know how to say [otherwise]."
In this case, Tanzer advises "sitting with your children regularly, and talking with them, indirectly getting at allowing them to express themselves." She says doing so "may diminish the need of the child to act out by cursing. This enhancement of communication is the long-term solution to acting-out behavior."
You can also discuss why cursing is inappropriate and talk about how other people may negatively view someone who curses frequently, if your child is swearing to seem "cool."
Teach and Model Positive Behaviors
A professional development session on behavior modification prompted Sonya Statz, a Significant Support Needs high school teacher, to implement creative solutions to counter aggressive language. Parents can adapt the techniques she uses in her classroom to use at home. Statz explains the importance of "setting the parameters of what is acceptable behavior and then teaching it to kids. Behavior needs to be taught, modeled and then the kids need to be tested on their knowledge so they can take ownership in their actions.”
At home, this process may begin with setting limits regarding language and respecting those limits yourself. When your children see the important adults in their lives expressing their frustration and anger in a variety of healthy ways, they are more likely to adopt similar techniques.
Stopping a child from cursing does not happen in a day or a week. It requires long-term, consistent responses from the adults in the child's life. Laughing off an incident or calling it cute diminishes the impact of the behavior as well as the power of your plan of action. Sticking with your behavioral strategies may sometimes be inconvenient, but it will help you improve your children's behavior in the long-term.