Help! My Kid Just Said #&@% - Cincinnati Children's Blog

Help! My Kid Just Said #&@%

What do you do when you first hear your child swear? It can be quite shocking to hear, and you’ll probably wonder where they learned the language, whether or not they understand what they said, and what to do about it.

Children are like sponges. They soak in everything from their surroundings – at school, child care, on TV, the things parents, teachers, coaches, relatives say … anything and everything around them is something to be absorbed.

Sometimes when a child swears, they may be repeating something they’ve heard through any of these channels and not realize what it means – its significance and implications. It is important to talk with your child, not from a place of shock, anger or disappointment, but instead from a place of calm where you can help normalize the experience and discuss the power of words, educating them on different types of language, and what is appropriate and what may not be.

Other times, because children imitate, try on and try out different ways of interacting with others, they may have observed reactions that others receive when using colorful or inappropriate words or phrases and want to experiment with using them as well. This is where, again, normalizing your response and educating is important. And, if the words observed were being used in anger or upset, and the child tries it out in this way – when they themselves are upset, it is helpful to talk about other avenues for expressing frustration that can be used without having to use such language.

As children get older, often late elementary or high school aged, they can sometimes perceive foul, inappropriate, sexualized or graphic language as powerful, provocative, socially appropriate and “cool.” In such cases, it is helpful to let them know the words are not shocking to you – that you know all of them, and then explain why you choose not to use them. This takes some of the power they may perceive the words to have away, and gives an opportunity for talking with your child about the values they hold and how the words they say can affect their overall sense of self and how they are perceived – by themselves and others. You can share with your child that such words are not consistent with who you see them as and empower them to use words that better reflect the person they want to be.

And, of course, you can appropriate consequences if you choose if unapproved language is continued in your presence or communicated in emails, letters, text messages or on social media. This is the avenue I take with my own children.

Most importantly, at any age, it is important for parents to act, but not overreact. And, in the words of Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” It is important to listen to our children, as well as also look at all of the ways they communicate so we can learn about where they are in terms of their use of inappropriate or culturally insensitive language, and how to best support them in making wise choices with the words they use.

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Dr. William Hansen

About the Author: Dr. William Hansen

William Hansen, Ph.D. is a staff psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s where his clinical interests include anxiety disorders in children and post traumatic stress disorder in children who have been involved in dog attacks. Before he settled in Cincinnati, Dr. Hansen’s education took him across the country several times starting with a stop at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where his BA thesis titled “A Principled Approach to Negotiation” earned Special Honors. From there, he earned a master's degree in Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology in Fresno, completed a pre-doctoral internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in Hartford Connecticut, and then returned to Fresno to complete his Ph.D. After which, he did a yearlong post-doctoral fellowship at Kaiser Permanante Medical Center in Santa Rosa, California. Dr. Hansen has been in Cincinnati since 1998, practicing at both the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s.

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  1. Lauren April 01, 17:51
    My son sees Dr. Hansen. He is a fantastic dr for my son. He has helped him in so many ways. I am very pleased with him.
  2. James April 22, 15:55
    Dr. Hansen is an exceptional & caring psychologist who worked wonders with my son. He is an expert at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and has excellent people skills. I recommend him highly.