Parents are usually perplexed when their children repeatedly use bad words. It may seem to parents that children are using such language because it is forbidden or gets a reaction, but this is rarely a significant reason for children's use of bad words. After all, children are not similarly tempted to do most of the other behaviors that are forbidden and which would provoke reactions. So, we must look for other explanations.
Bad words are scary: Lucy Daniels Center professionals have learned from our experiences with the children in our classrooms and therapies that children are often scared by bad words. They are scared because they are may have experienced bad words being used to mock, hurt, humiliate or demean another child, or to refer to private bodily areas in confusing or even stimulating ways.
Children commonly live out or repeat experiences that frighten them because such repetition decreases their anxiety. Furthermore, children feel less anxious when they are the ones who initiate scary situations, rather than having a scary situation sprung on them without their having any control. Living out or actively repeating scary situations enables children to feel in control of the scary situation, like a lion tamer or a puppet master. In fact, this coping strategy works so well that the original feeling of anxiety can actually be replaced by a pleasurable and excited feeling of mastery. Children's pleasure and glee over using bad words can be perplexing and upsetting to parents.
To determine whether their child was scared of bad words, parents can combine their existing understanding of their child with information about the circumstances under which the child heard the words.
We recommend that parents follow a two-part approach to help their child with their anxiety. First, parents should address the moral reasons not to use bad words. Children should be told that these words are always unkind, may hurt or make fun of people, and that their family does not believe in behaving in these ways with other people. Second, parents should explain that although it may feel like fun to be able to use these words, they believe that it was scary and confusing to hear them. Parents should encourage children to share how it felt to hear those words, and to discuss their questions or confusions. It may seem simpler to just declare that the words are wrong — end of the story — but such an approach leaves children even more confused and without the help they need to make sense of the experience and their reactions.
Bad words have power: Another possible explanation for the appeal of bad words lies in children's fascination with the power of the impact of bad words on other children, their parents and their teachers. If a child repeatedly uses bad words in an attempt to make himself feel more powerful, parents should consider the possibility that their child is feeling unsuccessful or in insufficient control of his or her life.
We recommend that parents continue to follow a two-part approach in this situation, as well. After addressing the moral issues, parents should do what they can to help their child feel less helpless or powerless. This is sometimes quite difficult to accomplish. At the very least, communicating an understanding of the source of a child's attraction to bad words always helps to reduce a child's sense of helplessness because it provides a sense of being understood and supported.
Bad words are a coping mechanism: Bad words almost always cause the recipient of the words to feel ashamed. Some children use bad words because they feel stuck with an excessive sense of shame about themselves, and they are able to temporarily diminish their own feeling of shame by inducing this feeling in someone else. This is another version of children's use of activity as a coping mechanism.
There are many reasons that children can develop excessive shame about themselves. Some parents are surprised to learn that excessive shame can develop even when the important people in their lives treat children respectfully. For example, children are at higher risk for developing an excessive sense of shame if they have a disability, have lost a parent to death or have experienced a divorce.
Parents who have reason to feel that their child's use of bad words is related to an excess sense of shame should focus, in the second part of the two-part approach, on helping their child recognize his or her own painful feelings about himself. They should also help the child understand that he or she is humiliating others in an effort to manage his or her own painful shame, and, that this effort is understandable but unacceptable. Children feel affirmed when they can be helped to see that they are acting unkindly for understandable reasons. Parents can then help their child reduce the sense of shame by discovering and addressing its source.
The use of bad words among young children is quite common. A child's use of inappropriate language is both an opportunity for parents to teach him or her about respectful treatment of others and an opportunity for parents and their child to understand his or her emotional life in a deeper and richer way.
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