Swearing around kids - is it really that bad?

For most new parents, the arrival of a new baby is a time of enormous emotional upheaval and change – and as that baby grows and develops, parents often find themselves having to adapt their own behaviours to suit the new housemate.

One of the things that many parents find difficult to change is the way that they speak – but in households where emotions often run high, or where swearing is just a part of everyday speech, can this prove problematic?

Dr Victoria Whitington is a senior lecturer in child development at the University of South Australia, and she points out that there’s an in-built mechanism in littlies that alerts them to negative behaviours in adults – particularly when it comes to the way we speak to and around them.

“Human beings are tuned for survival and when an event seems dangerous, we have a natural urge to respond,” Dr Whitington explains. “From birth, children pick up on emotions as a survival mechanism. They are affected by strong emotion – especially negative emotion and the subsequent behaviour – as this
high emotion indicates a danger to them. If, for example, there’s a lot of angry language in the household, then this can be quite stressful for children.”

The swear jar
Parents who swear around their children often do so without even realising it, and the good news is that the occasional F-bomb isn’t the end of the world. When the swearing is casual, says Dr Whitington, it doesn’t necessarily have a massive emotional impact on children – the main concern here is that your innocent little angel will learn the bad word himself, and then gleefully practise saying it in polite company. The solution to this is simple enough: “If you don’t want your child to swear, then don’t swear yourself,” Dr Whitington says.

However, larger problems can arise when the swearing is used angrily, or is directed at someone else in a derogatory fashion. “Kids can recognise that swearing sometimes carries a high emotion,” says Dr Whitington, and this can cause the same kind of stress reaction as fighting or other negative behaviours that they witness.

If you’re trying to get your potty mouth under control, there are a few simple solutions that can help. The first step is to become aware of when you typically swear and then figure out why you resort to the bad language. Once you have a handle on that, you can work on paying close attention to and modifying your behaviour.

A helpful idea is to replace naughty words with alternative phrases, such as the always-popular ‘sugar’ and ‘fiddlesticks’, if you can’t stop expressing yourself completely. Some households also have a ‘swear jar’, into which a fine of a dollar or two is put every time a curse word pops out. The money raised can go to charity, or be spent on a family treat.

It can, of course, be tough trying to change ingrained behaviour, so enlist the help of others. You and your partner can look out for each other, gently pointing out slip-ups (“Oops, Daddy – naughty word!”), and explaining to your child that the language used was not acceptable.

Anger management
Anger in the home is, in some instances, an unavoidable part of family life. But is it okay to argue in front of your child? And what can this do to his perception of normal behaviour?

“The impact that anger in the home has depends on the frequency and intensity,” Dr Whitington explains. “Some people say it’s healthy to contest the issues that are important to you with your partner – just as long as it doesn’t happen all the time, because that’s scary for small children.”

Some conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she continues. “If parents do fight, and then resolve things, that’s normal living – and kids can even learn a positive thing from that about conflict resolution.”

But when the fighting’s constant, this isn’t the healthiest of environments for your littlie, and it’s important that you do your best to shield him from it. Waiting until he is asleep or removing yourself from potentially fiery situations until everyone has had time to calm down are two commonly suggested strategies.

Andrew Greenfield, a Sydney-based child and educational psychologist, recommends a particular course of action for parents who do fight in front of their children. “After a conflict situation, it’s important that parents talk to their child about what has just happened,” he says. “Say things such as, ‘Mummy and Daddy were angry, and we shouldn’t have fought the way we did.’ This is an opportunity to both debrief with your child and to show him that there are better ways of dealing with conflict.”

If conflict is a continued problem in the home, you might try seeking help from a relationship counsellor or mediator to work through issues within your relationship.

Talking down
It’s not just the angry or naughty words you use that your tyke can pick up on – another area where kids are pretty perceptive is the tone of language, particularly when you’re talking about someone else.

“Talking negatively about other people will, undoubtedly, have an effect on the way your child sees those people,” says Dr Whitington. “This sort of thing is especially apparent in families going through a divorce or other high stress event.”

Being aware that the way you talk about other people will have an impact on what your littlie thinks about them is half the battle. Once you’re aware of the problem, you can take steps to alleviate it, such as moderating your behaviour or asking your partner to (again, very gently) point out if you’re being overly harsh in your comments about the people around you when around your tot.

Unhappy campers
A diet of negativity is never a good thing – for anyone. The experts say that even having one parent who is consistently negative about the world around him or her can have a profound impact on the behaviour of youngsters.

“Children pick up on the way that parents see the world,” Dr Whitington says. “It’s completely normal for parents to teach their kids this way, through socialisation. Parents who see the world as a threatening or difficult place – always saying, ‘This is bad, that is bad’ – can impact on their kids.”

Andrew says that parents need to be as realistic about this issue as possible. “There’s no point in just portraying positives all the time,” he says. “Parents should strive to present a balanced view of the world to their children.”

Where that sort of balanced view isn’t easily achieved at home, the best option is to look for positive influences outside the household, Andrew says. “It’s important to surround children with people who are more positive, so that they can see that the world isn’t all that bad, to try to minimise the impact of your stresses and emotions on them.”

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