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When Preschoolers Discover Swearing

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Apparently my son overheard someone using the "F" word. My husband and I don't swear, I'm pretty sure it was one of my husband's friends. My son repeated the word back in January. Since then he has said it about once every couple weeks. I have been ignoring it until this past week when he said it to one of my friends and I was very embarrassed. I told him that it's a bad word and he should not use it. I think that was a big mistake because since then he's been saying it all the time. I tried time out, I tried putting him in his room, I tried talking to him again about how it's not a nice word and nothing seems to work.


Three year olds are experimenting with power, and your son has found a very powerful word. Naturally he wants to say it all the time, particularly since this word has such power to get a reaction out of you. Think of your son as a little energy enthusiast; anything that gets juice from you will be repeated by him. (That's why giving kids positive energy and attention just for being themselves and cooperating is the best "disciplinary" strategy -- they don't have to act up to get your "juicy" attention.)

Ignoring your son's use of this swear word is the strategy that most "experts" recommend, so that you aren't "rewarding" your child with attention. But your son is no dummy. He sensed your reaction and knew his new word had power! Since you wouldn't react to the word and help him figure out what it meant, he tried it on your friend. Bingo!

Now it's time for some new strategies. Unfortunately, telling a child that a word is "bad" just increases his fascination with it. Let's try three other strategies. First, we will explain why the word is problematic and give him substitutes. At the same time, we'll give him an opportunity to experiment with the word safely. Finally, we'll eliminate any power struggle that might be causing him to torment you with his new fave word.

1. Redirection.

Next time he uses his big bad word, ask him what he thinks that word means. Then explain that swear words like this one are rude words that people say when they are very angry and can't figure out how to express their feelings respectfully. They say it just to make someone else feel bad, like an attack -- the same as calling someone a name. He himself can see that saying that word made your friend feel bad, and makes you feel bad. That's because it's a "rude" word, sort of like calling someone a name. It's an attack. Since you know your son is smarter than that, you bet that he can come up with lots of words to use when he is angry or frustrated, so that he can express himself without attacking. As he knows, in your house no one ever calls anyone else names; that's the rule.

Then turn the discussion into a game of brainstorming (and writing down) a list of things he can say when he is frustrated or angry, that are not rude, anything from "I'm furious!" to "Agamemnon!" to "Buffalo Bung!" I realize he can't read yet, so posting your list of alternatives on the fridge won't be enough by itself. You will also have to begin using these words around the house in a fun way.

2. Let him experiment.

It's a lot easier to redirect a child's impulse than to stop it. That means that he is unlikely to easily give up using his new power word, but you can re-channel his usage to a safe situation. Remind him that rude words are not to be used around other people, because it is like an attack on someone else. If he wants to say it, he needs to do so in private or during special time.

What do I mean by special time? I recommend that every parent spend at least ten minutes of Special Time with each child daily. This time is not structured, but is a time to help your child process emotions and reconnect with you. It's a great time to support kids to work through issues they're having. Here's a whole article on Special Time.

Tell your little guy that you want to spend some special time with him for 15 minutes, and he can use any words he wants to. Beforehand, prepare yourself so you don't get triggered. Remind yourself that letting him experiment in this way will help him move past his fixation. This is just a word. It has no power beyond what you give it. You'll still probably have to do a lot of breathing to let yourself treat this shocking word as a game, but that's what I recommend, to take the sting out of it.

Remind your son that during Special Time, he can use any words he wants. When he treats you to his new fave word, make a game out of it so that he has an excuse to repeat his word over and over. Pretend you're hard of hearing and ask him to repeat himself. Keep your sense of humor and be playful, because your goal is to get him laughing. As he giggles about his powerful bad word, he's discharging whatever tension and anxieties are driving him to keep using it. These might be anxieties about the kid at school who taught him the word, or issues about power struggles with you. You don't have to know the cause to help him work it out and get past it.

Keep doing whatever makes him giggle, whether that's playing the village idiot or pretending to be "shocked, shocked, to find words like that being used here!" Try a mock shouting match, throwing your own nonsense words back at him. Be as silly as possible, so your shouting match erupts into giggles. His word will quickly seem tired and boring to him, when you repeatedly meet it with creative nonsense, shouting back at him "Bumfuzzle!" or "Supercalifragilistic!" or "Snollygoster!" (Think you might have a hard time coming up with silly words? Use google and make a list in advance. Post it near where you'll be with your son!)

What are we accomplishing? We're letting him play with the ability to shock us, to act outrageously, in a safe way. He's clearly being driven to experiment with this, so we're supporting him to get it out of his system in a way that will make these kinds of words less enticing. We're helping him to feel closer to you, so he's more likely to respect your wishes and requests about this and everything else. We're acknowledging that his interest in this powerful word, and power in general, are "normal" and don't make him a bad, unlovable person.

After you play this game for 15 minutes, wind down with snuggles and kisses. Change the subject by reading him a favorite book, and then going to do something else together, such as making dinner or running the bath. At that point, once he's regained his equilibrium, say "That was a fun game, wasn't it?" Explain to him that you will do this with him whenever he wants, but except for special time, swear words are not allowed in your house. He can use them privately in his room if he needs to say them, but he can't say them to other people because that will be perceived as an attack. As long as your son is allowed to feel powerful in his life, and feels connected to you, he will want to follow your guidance.

3. Eliminate the power struggle

Usually, preschoolers use swear words and potty talk because they actually feel anxious about them. Their laughter dispels the anxiety. (Why are they anxious? Because these words hold power in our culture. And because young children are anxious about so many things, from whether they will make it to the bathroom on time to realizing that they--and you--will die someday.

But preschoolers also use swear words because they feel so powerless in life, and these words are a way to get the upper hand with us, if only temporarily. This is especially true for strong-willed kids who more easily feel pushed around, or for kids whose parents are more controlling. To avoid these power struggles when your son uses his bad word, don't forbid its use, which you can't enforce anyway. Instead, remind him that that word is rude and mean because it makes people uncomfortable, and that we don't use rude, mean words around others. Tell him that he is in charge of choosing where to say such a word — he can go in the bathroom or into his bedroom. But it's not a word that can be used around other people. If he wants to express frustrations, no problem -- there's a whole list of great words on the fridge and you can help him read them to choose one.

If he repeats his word to see what you'll do, resist the bait. You don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited. Instead, say "What did you say? Did you say you need 100 kisses!?" Grab him and hug and kiss him, moving the interaction from a stand-off to a connecting, playful, romp. It will completely change the tone and your son will have little interest in his word at that point.

Good luck!
Dr. Laura

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