Cursing and kids: Experts share how to deal if you (or your child) has let an expletive slip

So you let an expletive slip out in front of your kid. Here's how experts recommend handling it. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
So you let an expletive slip out in front of your kid. Here's how experts recommend handling it. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

Well, it finally happened. After years of doing "earmuffs," biting your tongue and keeping everything strictly G-rated, you've let an expletive rip in front of your kids. Now you're cursing (sorry) yourself and wondering: Am I a bad parent? Have I ruined their childhood innocence? Is little River now doomed to become the Andrew Dice Clay of pre-K?

For starters, turning the air blue because you stepped on a Lego, got cut off in traffic or accidentally emailed your entire company your thoughts on the Don't Worry Darling drama does not make you a bad parent, even if you feel like you've failed. Just ask Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and author of the appropriately titled new parenting tome, You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent.

"Just like any other feeling, there's nothing wrong with feeling guilty," Naumburg tells Yahoo Life over email. "I mean, it doesn't feel great, but there's nothing wrong with it. Besides, we're parents. We can handle things that don't feel great!

"Having said that, it might be helpful for parents to get curious about why they're feeling guilty," she adds. "Is it because they're worried about what other people might think of them? Or is it because of how they feel about profanity? If it's the former, then I would encourage parents to try to let go of those guilty feelings. Parenting is hard enough without worrying about other people's judgments. For those parents who feel strongly about not swearing in front of their children, then I would encourage them to remember that no one is perfect, we all make mistakes and our kids will give us plenty of opportunities to practice staying calm and not dropping the f-bomb in front of them."

I cursed in front of my kid. Now what?

If you do drop that f-bomb in front of your young child, try your best to play it cool in the moments that immediately follow, advise Kristin Gallant and Deena Margolin of the toddler parent coaching resource Big Little Feelings.

"Just give the curse word zero attention," says Gallant. "When you don't give it any attention, it's not 'fun' for your toddler, so they won't give it any attention either."

You should take the same approach if your child is exposed to a curse word from another source, such as a TV show or a stranger loudly venting into the phone as he or she walks past. Making a big deal of it — like, rushing to switch off the TV versus calmly changing the channel or casually exiting the room — will only draw the child's attention to what has been said and pique their interest.

"Your response to something will impact your toddler's response to something," says Margolin, a child therapist. "If you have a big reaction to the curse word, your toddler will have a big reaction to the curse word, because your big reaction feels 'fun' to a toddler — like a game they want to keep playing."

But it's one thing to accidentally swear in front of your kid, and another to swear at them (example: "Get in the damn car now!"). As such, you'll want to handle the situation differently.

"If you use a curse word in a way that is directly related to your toddler, first thing’s first: Remember that you are not a bad parent," says Gallant. "Losing your s**t happens, friends. And you can (and should!) repair with your kid."

She and Margolin recommend a script in which parents apologize ("I want to say I'm sorry for using an inappropriate word with you today"), explain ("I was feeling frustrated, and I yelled at you") and acknowledge the child's feelings ("You probably felt scared/shocked/sad when I got upset and used an inappropriate word"). Lastly, emphasize that you love them — a step the Big Little Feelings team urges parents to not skip because they think it's implied or "too simple."

Naumburg agrees that an apology is an order if a parent loses their cool and uses strong language with their child.

"We can always, always apologize to our children, and we can do that without undermining our own authority or while still holding our children responsible for their role in the chaos (if they had one)," she says. "The first step is to get as calm as we can; if we're still triggered or angry, we're at risk of exploding again, and that might end poorly. Then, we can apologize for our behavior (but not our feelings — you never have to apologize for how you feel!). This might look like, 'I'm sorry I used that word and/or talked to you in that way. It was not appropriate, and I'll try hard not to do it again.' I encourage parents not to promise they'll never do again, because that's a promise most of us are unlikely to be able to keep."

Experts warn against having a big reaction to your kid repeating a curse word. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
Experts warn against having a big reaction to your kid repeating a curse word. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

My kid is cursing. WTF?

Kids say the darndest things — including the odd curse word they may have picked up from Daddy or overheard when they crept into your bedroom during Succession. But while it can be jarring to hear your cherubic toddler swear like a sailor — or worse, Logan Roy — parenting experts say it's best to resist the urge to scold, laugh or have some other big reaction in response, as that may only egg them on.

"If they repeat the curse word, try to not to give it any reaction at first," says Gallant. "Giving no reaction means your toddler's brain won't be triggered to think, 'When I say this, Mommy/Daddy pays attention to me!' And if they don’t think the behavior will trigger your attention, they're way less likely to do it."

With luck, they'll move on. If, however, you find that the bad word in question keeps popping up in their vocabulary, and you're worried about them cursing around others, it's time to acknowledge the potty-mouthed elephant in the room. Communicate in an age-appropriate way that there are other words to say when they are feeling frustrated or something bad happens (see: "Aww man!" or "Oh sugar!" or one of Naumburg's personal favorites, "Fiddlesticks!"). Adopting these phrases yourself can reinforce the message and help them pick it up.

Toddlers are bound to parrot what they hear without understanding what it means. But how do you handle it when your child is older and starts swearing with intent? Some parents may not take issue with a little profanity around the house, notes Naumburg, though she recommends having a family discussion about appropriate language to use outside the home or around other people, like, say, grandparents.

Then there are parents whose first instinct might be to grab a bar of soap and steer their kid to the nearest sink. Naumburg suggests taking a gentler tack.

"If you're not OK with profanity, try to let your child know that in the most low-key way possible," she says. "Making a big deal out of things is often shaming, and the message can get lost in the intensity of the moment. Something as simple as, 'Language, please,' should suffice to communicate your concerns."

It's also worth "understanding what's happening behind the bad words," Big Little Feelings expert Margolin adds. Did they hear an obscenity and not understand what it meant, or just want to try saying it aloud? Was peer pressure or bullying involved? Were they just joking around with friends? What's the context?

"Regardless of the response, acknowledge the feelings associated with the trigger and remember: All feelings are OK. All behaviors are not," says Gallant.

Again, parents can offer alternatives to dealing with whatever situation was at play, such as: “You were upset at school today and said a bad word. It's OK to be upset, but it's not OK to say that word. What's something else you can say/do when you feel upset?”

And what if that doesn't nip it in the bud?

"If your child continues to swear in a way that you’re not comfortable with, then wait until you're calm (and not in front of other people), and express your concerns," she continues. "I would also encourage parents to work with their children to come up with an appropriate consequence. A quarter in the swear jar? An extra day of dish duty? Whatever it is, your kid will be less likely to protest their consequence if they helped come up with it. ... They might still protest a bit!"

That swear jar is a two-way street, Naumburg adds. Being punished for swearing when Mom or Dad have more curses than Hogwarts is a "tough pill for your kiddo to swallow," she says.

"I would really encourage parents to get clear on the reasoning behind the disparity, and either stop swearing, or be OK with your kiddo doing it too," the author says. "That kind of hypocrisy just doesn’t land well with most kids (and most people in general)."

When everyone around you needs a bleep button

Most parents have no doubt figured out by now that you can't control everything. A car may drive past while blaring some X-rated lyrics. People around them will curse, accidentally or not. At some point, your little angel will want to watch something a little more daring than CoComelon. Censoring everything around you just isn't possible.

But, hey, you can try. If you're spending time with family members or friends who are prone to adult language, Margolin suggests making a simple request like this: "Toddler brains are so spongy, and they're sure to hold onto — and repeat — anything they hear! We're avoiding curse words when they're in earshot, and we’d be so appreciative if you could, too.”

As your kid grows older, you may find that it's their friends who have the potty mouths. How you handle it is dependent on a few factors: How close is this friend? Do you know their parents well? Is your kid coming home repeating those four-letter words, or is your objection simply that you don't want them hearing profanity at all?

In the latter case, Naumburg warns that "chances are they're hearing it from other places — and if they're not, they likely will be soon."

"Canceling all of the playdates with this friend is unlikely to solve the problem," she says. "This may just be something we all need to adjust to as our kids get older!"

But it's worth having a conversation with your kid that addresses your concerns about the "salty language" they're picking up and establishes what sort of behavior you expect at home if they want to keep spending time with their friends. It may not even be an official expletive that's rubbing you the wrong way; if you're uncomfortable with other vulgar phrases (scatalogical terms, crude slang or slurs), speak up.

"My grandmother was not a fan of the word 'suck,' and she let me know, and I stopped saying it around her (even though I definitely said it in other places in my life)," Naumburg says. "If you don't like that language, call your kids out on it and work with them to come up with appropriate consequences if they continue to use those words. If you don’t mind, then don't worry about it. And if they get in trouble at school or practice for saying those words, then that's just another opportunity for your kids to learn that different situations have different rules."

Over time, you can also ease up on censoring what your kids hear.

"I think you can ease up on the earmuffs once your kids are demonstrated a reasonable (or at least good enough) ability to distinguish between profanity and clean language, and once they have the self-awareness and self-regulation to either not swear at all, or only swear at appropriate times and places," says Naumburg. "This is going to happen at different ages for every child and family."

Is cursing that big of a deal?

There's a lot of pearl-clutching about kids being exposed to expletives, but not all parents will — or need to — fixate on maintaining a G-rated bubble. Ultimately, says Naumburg, it's up to each family to decide how much importance they place on keeping their home profanity-free.

"I think reasonable people can disagree about this," says Naumburg, citing how her own teens might swear on occasion but not to the point that it bothers her.

"I trust that they have the judgment and self-regulation to swear only when it’s appropriate and clean up their language when it's not," she says. "Other parents might feel strongly that swearing isn't appropriate, and that's OK too. They get to set the rules and expectations for their home and family, and if they don't want to hear spicy language, they shouldn’t have to."

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