What to Do When Your Child Uses Four-Letter Words

happy preteen girl covering her mouth and laughing

You delight in every new word your little one learns. But one word that might not make it into the baby book is her first four-letter zinger. Whether she learns the colorful language from you or somewhere else, how you react to her makes all the difference in how often the word comes up again.

Why Do Kids Curse?

For adults, curse words often come out of anger or frustration. You might let a curse word slip when you stub your toe, get cut off in traffic or ruin a favorite shirt in the laundry. Older kids sometimes use curse words to express feelings, but toddlers and preschoolers often use the words out of curiosity. They might hear the words and decide to try them out themselves. They may want a reaction from you. For young kids, it's often just another thing they learn and test out in the real world.

Don't React

Kids pick up on parent reactions to things they say or do. Say your little one tests out a swear word. You giggle because it's surprising and maybe a little cute in your eyes. Your child registers that reaction as approval from you. She made you happy by saying the word, so she should continue using it.

What if you react in anger? Responding with anger in any situation can cause your child emotional distress. But in this situation, it might reinforce the idea that cursing is associated with anger. Your child may continue using the naughty language to express her own anger.

Instead, control your reaction. You can choose to completely ignore the situation and say nothing at all. This method is often effective if your child is saying the words specifically for attention. If you do respond verbally, keep your emotions under control to avoid unintentionally reinforcing the curse words.

Tell Your Child Cursing Is Not Allowed

A simple way to discourage swearing is by telling your child that the word is not okay to say. For young kids, you might say, "That is not a nice word. We do not use that word in this family." If your child is older, you could go deeper by explaining what the word means in an age-appropriate way. If that's not possible, talk about how the word might make other people feel. No matter how you approach it, keep your tone matter-of-fact and direct.

Come Up With Alternative Words

Sometimes words get stuck in a child's head. Even though he knows he shouldn't say it, the word slips out occasionally. Or he might say it out of frustration without realizing it, much the way adults do when something irritating happens.

Help your child clean up that potty mouth by coming up with different words to say instead of the curse word. You might say, "Oh, pickles!" or, "Fishsticks!" when you're upset. Have fun with it, so the new word is more appealing to say than the curse word.

Work on Expressing Feelings

If your child uses curse words to show anger, frustration or other emotions, focus on finding other ways to share those feelings. Practice naming the emotions and expressing them verbally with healthier words. Instead of just telling your child not to curse, you might say, "It seems like you're feeling upset over your toy breaking. I understand that. Let's think of a better way to say it."

You can also help your child practice putting her feelings into words. Have her practice saying, "I feel mad when my sister takes my toys." Kids need to learn how to express how they're feeling, and they sometimes need help doing that.

Hand Out Appropriate Discipline

Setting expectations for swearing lets your child know that you won't tolerate those naughty words. Some kids press the limits to see if they can still get away with a curse word here and there.

If you feel strongly about your child not cursing, squash the boundary pushing with an age-appropriate disciplinary action. You might send your child to his room or to time out if he breaks the no-cursing rule. Never use punishments like hitting or washing your child's mouth out with soap. Not only are those reactions ineffective, they're potentially harmful and extreme given the situation.

If you prefer a positive motivator, reward your little one for not using naughty words. A swear jar is one option. Decide on the type of coin you want to use. Little kids might be motivated by pennies or nickels. Older kids might need dimes or quarters for more motivation. If your child doesn't use naughty words for the day, he gets a few coins put into his jar. If he does swear, he gets money taken out of his jar. After a set number of days or weeks, he gets the money in his jar. Younger kids might also respond to sticker charts or small prizes for avoiding swear words or expressing emotions in a healthier way.

Clean Up Your Language

Kids can pick up curse words outside the home, but little ones often learn those first four-letter words from parents or siblings. Hey, no one's judging. It's easy to let a word or two slip out in a moment of frustration. And it's tough to break the habit. But it's also tough to get upset with your child for cursing when he hears you do it.

Try to replace your favorite curse words with other words. You might say, "Mother of pearl," or, "Son of a nutcracker." If you do catch yourself saying a curse word, own up to it. Let your kids know you shouldn't have said that word and that you're going to try harder next time.