Help! My child is picking up bad words!

As parents, we get excited when our child adds new words to their vocabulary and learns how to use them in the right context. This is especially true when our child has a speech and language delay. Every new word counts. At times, however, children may pick up and use words that are unexpected or inappropriate. What’s the best way to react to and tackle this behaviour? Read on to find out. 

Why do children pick up and use bad words?

Young children may start using inappropriate words for various reasons, often without truly understanding what the word actually means or why it’s unacceptable or inappropriate. They can pick up these words from inside and outside the home, usually from media exposure (including tv shows, movies, YouTube, video games and apps), family members and their peers. The most common reasons children pick up and use inappropriate words are: 

Reason #1: To get attention
Some children say inappropriate words to get attention or even to get a strong reaction from others. They may find the look on your face (shock, anger, surprise) and/ or the sound of your voice (raised, disapproving, laughter), in response to their inappropriate words, to be amusing and perceive this to be reinforcement to do it again.

Reason #2: To express anger and frustration

Young children, and those with speech delays, often struggle to communicate their wants, needs, and feelings. They may also find it difficult to keep their big emotions in check. Therefore, they may use inappropriate words as a means of venting out or expressing their anger and frustration.

Reason #3: To explore words and copy others

Sometimes, children may accidentally use an inappropriate word when they’re exploring new words. If you see this happening, you can gently correct your child’s pronunciation, without giving the word itself much attention.

What you can do

Learning and using inappropriate words is a behaviour that children can unlearn with your help and support. Rather than adopting the wait and see approach, you can start correcting this unexpected behaviour by first identifying the reason behind it. Understanding the underlying cause can also help you to decide the best way to react and respond. Here are some of the strategies you can apply:

Strategy #1: Ignore them

If your child says something unexpected or rude, it can be genuinely shocking and it’s natural to want to give a big, knee-jerk reaction. However, if your child is doing it to get attention or a reaction, it’s best to stay calm, not react and ignore the words completely. Eye contact, an audible gasp, a laugh or your anger gives the word attention, which may actually encourage your child to say it again.

Strategy #2: Positive attention

If you believe your child is using impolite words to seek attention, one of the best ways to respond is by providing lots of positive attention and praise when they use polite and kind words. 

Strategy #3: Model and Teach them fun words that aren’t offensive 

To redirect your child from using inappropriate words, try modeling and teaching them other words, or even funny made-up words that aren’t offensive. For example, ‘flip,’ ‘fudge,’ ‘fuzzle,’ ‘hullabaloo’, ‘bumbershoot,’ ‘lollygag,’ ‘hodgepodge’ and more.

Strategy #4: Validate your child’s feelings

If you think your child is using inappropriate words to let out their emotions, let them know that it’s alright to have and feel these big emotions. However, make it a point to also tell them that it’s better to use kind or polite words. You can also teach your child how to manage their strong emotions and calm down by:

  • Taking deep breaths
  • Counting to 10 
  • Talking about how they feel. Model saying, “I feel really frustrated/ angry/ sad right now” . 

Strategy #5: Help them understand 

Try explaining to your child why using unkind and impolite words isn’t OK. The challenge is, they may find it hard to understand why a word isn’t “nice” or that it means something “bad.” So besides saying things like, “That’s not a nice word,” or “We don’t say bad words,” you could also try telling them that those words can upset or hurt others. Try saying, “We don’t use words that upset others/ our friends.” 

Strategy #6: Set family rules

Children can get confused over why certain words are bad for them to use, but adults can get away with using them. To show your child that the rules about using unkind or impolite words apply to grown ups as well, set family rules about using respectful language that all your family members (regardless of age) need to follow. 

Strategy #7: Watch what they consume  

No one in your family uses inappropriate words around children, and yet your child picked up a bad word! What gives? Children often mimic what they hear, and unfortunately, they not only pick up good words, but bad ones as well. To curb negative influences from the media, be sure to check the ratings on TV shows, movies, games and apps before letting your child use them. Don’t watch shows with strong language while your child is around, and keep your media devices in areas where you can monitor them.

 This article was reviewed by Stacey Shah, our Principal Speech and Language Therapist.

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