How to Talk to Your Kids About Bad Words

Kids love a reaction. (Don’t we all though?) When a child sees an older sibling or “cool” kid at school say a mysterious new word and as a result, heads turn in shock and disbelief, it’s only natural for another child to want to try it, too. Simply put – they’re curious. What’s the best way to talk to kids about bad words?

Every family has their own definition of what constitutes a “bad word”. This can be very puzzling for children, especially when they hear profanity on tv, the school bus, the playground – or, perhaps most confusing of all – from grownups. What can parents do to teach kids about bad words, especially when each family has a different approach to handling the intricacies of modern language?

What Constitutes a “Bad Word”?

How do we define a “bad word”? In some households, “butt” may be considered a “bad word”, with “bottom” being the preferred alternative. In other homes, children may hear a different word in its place… a synonym for donkey. (Don’t make me say it!)

With limitless possibilities and nuances of how bad words can be defined, the best approach is for each family unit to determine their own set of rules, based on their beliefs and comfort level. (More on that below!) But first, what should you do if/when your child says a bad word?

What to Do When Your Child Says a Bad Word

Depending on the situation, it may strike you as hilarious the first time your child says a bad word. Or you might be utterly mortified. Either way, keep in mind that your reaction has a direct effect on your kiddo’s next move. If you gasp or laugh, you’re encouraging their behavior and will likely see more of it.

If you’re reading this article, chances are, that’s not the direction you’re wanting to take. So, what should you do instead?

Remain Calm and Avoid Overreacting

Now is the time to mentally prepare yourself – before it actually happens. Additionally, talk to your partner or other caregivers to ensure you’re all on the same page with how to address this inevitable situation.

Jennie David, PhD, a psychologist in the division of pediatric psychology and neuropsychology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, gave some great advice on handling bad words in an article via VeryWell Family. She said, “Having a big reaction communicates to the child that the curse words get a big response, and the child will be more likely to keep saying the word, whether or not they understand what the word means.”

Consider Their Age & the Situational Context

A Kindergartener repeating a bad word without understanding it is quite different than a teenager swearing out of anger. So first, consider your child’s age and the context of the situation.

Then, determine whether the child said the word to get a reaction, or if they’re trying to convey a strong emotion. If they said it out of frustration, you might calmly ask why they said it; inquire about the thoughts and feelings that triggered the word or phrase. Address the root of the issue, rather than the way in which they expressed it. In other words, help them process their feelings rather than immediately attacking the way they went about telling you.

If your child is in a good headspace after the above conversation, use this opportunity as a teachable moment to move forward with discussing appropriate language usage. However, if your child is too worked up (or too young) to comprehend the subtleties and nuances of words, wait for a more opportune time.

Use the guide below to get started with establishing clear communicational boundaries.

Establish Family Rules About Vocabulary

Chances are, you already have rules in place for screentime, expectations for tidiness, and manners at the dinner table. Using your preexisting family framework, weave in your linguistic guidelines.

Create a “Word Wall” Visual Explanation

To help provide context for the impact of bad words, a visual explanation can do wonders. In a workshop fashion, sit down with your child(ren) and draw out a horizontal line, similar to a timeline. On the right, write “Wonderful Words”. In the middle, “Neutral Words”. On the left, write “Hurtful Words”.

Together, brainstorm examples of each category. Below are some examples:

Wonderful Words:

  • Awesome
  • I love you!
  • Beautiful
  • Kind
  • Fun

Neutral Words:

  • Airplane
  • Computer
  • Sandwich

Hurtful Words:

  • Dumb
  • Shut up
  • I hate you
  • Swear words

It may be helpful to identify additional categories of words that fall between one extreme or the other. For example, bathroom talk or body part nicknames could be neutral or hurtful depending on how they’re used. These can be placed between “Neutral” and “Hurtful” words. Words like “fine” or “good” could be in between “Wonderful” and “Neutral”.

For a simple, yet powerful, story for children aged four to seven, check out Elizabeth Verdick’s book, Words Are Not for Hurting.

Discuss Your Family’s Expectations

Once you have created your list, talk with your child(ren) about how each category of words makes them feel. Wonderful words build us up and make us feel encouraged. Hurtful words tear us down or make us feel uncomfortable. Neutral words are somewhere in between.

Discuss the impact of words in general and how kids can convey their feelings without hurting others. Talk through examples of how they can handle situations that may arise and trigger them to want to use hurtful words. For example, instead of “I hate you”, they could say, “I feel angry that you did that.”

Consider putting your word wall on the fridge so you can refer back to it often. As situations arise, point to it and say, “Ah, that sounded like a hurtful word/phrase. What’s a nicer way to say that?”

Brainstorm Alternatives to Profanity

Let your child know which words are considered inappropriate and should be avoided. Ensure they understand that using such words at home or in public is not acceptable. Consistency is key; make sure all family members adhere to the same rules to avoid confusion.

Encourage your child to express themselves using alternative words or phrases. Teach them creative ways to convey frustration, excitement, or disappointment without resorting to bad language. This approach empowers them to find appropriate outlets for their emotions while broadening their vocabulary and enhancing their communication skills.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

As much as we want to protect and shield our children from the evils of the world, there comes a time when the training wheels come off and kids have to enter an unsheltered reality. Our job as parents is to help prepare our children to become responsible citizens who can make good choices regardless of who is watching.

Therefore, throughout conversations with your kids about bad words, you may have to reinforce the fact that while the rules may fluctuate between the playground, other kids’ houses, or on tv, the rules for your particular household are the ones they must uphold. (At least until they, too, are in the Grownups’ Club).

Schedule a Tour at Kiddi Kollege

Teaching your child about bad words and appropriate language usage is a crucial aspect of their social and emotional development. By establishing clear boundaries and being a positive role model yourself, you can guide your child towards respectful and responsible language choices. Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient and consistent.

At Kiddi Kollege, our teachers and staff are experts at creating and maintaining high standards in a safe, warm environment where all students can grow and flourish. We strive to create an atmosphere that fosters top-notch education while nurturing each child’s individual needs.

Our eight early childhood education centers are spread across Johnson County – more specifically: Olathe, Overland Park, Leawood, and Lenexa. We provide child care for infants as young as six weeks all the way through pre-K, and we provide afterschool care, too! We’d love to have you join our Kiddi Kollege family. Schedule a tour today!