Swearing: Can you, and should you, immunise your child from foul language?

Language specialists believe that swearing has been around since the dawn of human time.  In my thinking, if something has been with human beings for so long, it must be serving a jolly important purpose.

The thing is, though, that researchers are now telling us that profanity is on the rise.  Swearing and foul language can make other people feel upset or attacked, too.  So, can we, or should we, immunise children against swearing?

If we are going to replace something in a person’s repertoire of behaviours, psychologists first need to consider the function a particular behaviour is serving a person.  Why does the behaviour work for a person?

It turns out that swearing appears to serve a number of functions for us as individuals and as groups.

  • Swearing can help us let big feelings go.

Turns out that swearing help most of us tolerate pain.  Research published in 2009 had scientists getting people to place their hands in very cold water.  One group got to swear, the other group had to say another neutral word.  Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. (However, swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophize and I’m not going to comment further there for fear of upsetting any excitable male friends or family members – wink, wink).

It’s also important to note that more swearing did not reduce pain more. In fact, swearing seems to lose it magical, “feel better” powers the more that we use it.  Otherwise, I’m sure those who experience chronic pain would love being able to feel more comfortable by merely letting a few foul words fly through the day.

  • Swearing communicates to others that we are in a certain frame of mind.

In fact, in a paper written at the beginning of the last century it was identified that swearing had origins in combat and over time it became used when someone was under threat.  So, originally, swearing was likely seen as fighting words and it still functions to show others how we feel about things.

  • Swearing can be used to emphasise things.

When you think about, swearing can provide the ultimate exclamation mark!  It can add significant emphasis to just about any noun or verb.

  • Swearing also has social purposes.

Swearing can create a feeling of solidarity and it can also be used in groups to create a sensed of informality. My husband tells me he thinks swearing is fun! My oldest, now adult, children swear when chatting via text or across social media.

Workplaces, schools, relatives, “paddocks” –  each place comes with a, predominantly unwritten, set of rules about swearing.  The most common contexts in which people report hearing swearing are sports-related – on the field, in the locker room – even the sports canteen!    People are less likely to swear in the absence of parents, our doctor (although medical professionals report being exposed to increased levels of swearing), people we are not close to, or people who we see as having a higher status than us.

It is swearing’s social function that makes swearing “catchy” and spread in social groups – including, crèche, kindergartens and school environments.

The different functions of swearing can also be understood by looking at the different parts of the brain that are activated at those times we are letting the taboo words fly.  In a review of the literature,  researchers found that different parts of the brain seem to be associated with different types of swearing.  Swearing to deal with pain or a big feeling is usually associated with activity on the right side of the brain.  Most people have their language centre on the left side of the brain.  When swearing is used in a purposeful and social context – to fit in and speak the local speak – the activity is more left-brained. Swearing can also be associated with tic disorders although for the most part, children who have tic disorders, including Tourette’s syndrome, are more likely to make involuntary utterances or grunts rather than full-on swearing.

The front of the brain is the bit that tells us when we should or shouldn’t swear.  This is the last bit that gets myelinated or insulated as a child develops so it’s not surprising that little ones will often get the rules about context incorrect. If the frontal cortex is damaged due to an acquired brain injury or a degenerative condition like Alzheimer’s, the swearing can become less regulated as the brain has less of a filter.

As adults, we are supposed to be able to scan the present environment, and maybe the present company and discern whether it’s okay to let a swear word rip.  Some children will pick this up over time, but most will need some guidance.

Not everyone, including some very important people in our society, value swearing.  Children need to learn that it leaves an impression and they need to learn to read others and actually learn to make some basic assumptions so that they can decide when to let a swear word slide out and when to hold back.

If you are living with, parenting or working with a young person and you think their swearing is concerning, there are a few implications of all the information I’ve outlined above.

If  swearing is about letting stuff go, then we need to ensure that a child  is learning to regulate their emotions and has more in their “letting go tool box” than just profanity.  An important task of a growing brain involves getting those frontal lobes to build the filters necessary to make sure we do the right thing in the right places.

If swearing is about fitting in, we also need to let children know other ways that they can do this or even to weigh up whether they need to fit in with any particular group. It’s important that they learn to draw the line and not use swearing and foul language as a put down or to be purposely offensive or attacking.

Swearing warns other people that we are in a certain mood.  Tell your kids to stay away from someone who is swearing and not to swear at someone if they are upset with them – it is best to try to use problem solving.

Have discussions about swearing in reference to context.  Where might you be able to get away with it and when should you try never to swear?

Yes  – Swearing is catchy and on the increase… and the more we use it, the less it works to help us with our feelings.

Rules about swearing will depend on your own values at home, but be mindful that too much swearing lessens some of the positive effects of swearing.  Swearing  works best when you save it up for just the right moment.  I like to save my swear words, the ones that don’t slip out involuntarily when I break a toe, for those times when I really want to make a maximum impact.  I like to think I do this mostly in context. Remember your children are watching and listening to you more than you know.

Can you immunise your child against swearing – maybe and it will take work to catch them, review the circumstances and respond with information about context and appropriateness?  It’s best to think about giving your child a framework to consider the pros and cons of foul language in certain places and with certain people.

Should you immunise your child against the use of swear words?  I’ve not heard of anyone who has never uttered a foul word – even inside their head.  It seems like we are biologically wired to do so at times and while the benefits may wear off with over use, we should not be too hard on children who swear infrequently and when something really hurts.

Moments where someone is caught swearing are great learning opportunities for everyone!

Grief and Loss: Helping kids with these BIG feelings

At some stage in each of our lives we will experience the loss of someone to…. death.  Despite death having been a part of human experience for all of documented history, it still feels like it is such a taboo subject to talk about.  This sense of wanting to avoid the topic is largely, I think, because it is one that comes with BIG feelings and, perhaps, with questions that even the smartest grown up may not be able to answer in easy ways.   All of this complexity and avoidance of big feelings can mean that, often, people do not get around to talking to their children about death and dying at all.  Children can get thrown in the emotional deep-end without some understanding of what is going on for them and for others when someone dies.

Grief is often used in psychology to talk about any loss – moving school, losing contact with a friend, or even losing a favourite toy or changing houses.  Adults may be a little more in tune with this kind of loss for children and find it easier to speak openly and offer support, strategies and distraction. When it comes to talking about loss due to death, we need to be just as open, sensitive, and supportive.

Many children experience their first big grief reactions in relation to the death of a family pet and this is a very good time to have more conversations about dying and death.

Back in the day, it was thought that grief had stages that people must progress through, but we are now much wiser to the ways people react to grief and loss and know that it is a way more complicated picture than a simple stage approach might have us think.  The size and shape of the feeling will depend on many different things – your relationship with the person, your last contact with that person, how you are travelling emotionally at any given point, how much other grief and loss you have experienced….the list can be long.   Essentially, though, if a psychologist or grief counsellor is involved, they will tend to focus on what the loss actually means for each person at a particular time.  Obviously, the more complex the relationships and lifestyles, the more complex the grief reaction may be and psychologists work hard to try to understand what the death means for the person in terms of their beliefs about themselves, their past, their future and their relationships.

Because we understand the reactions to death will be influenced by beliefs, it’s important that we consider what a person believes happen when someone dies – this is the case for kids, too!

Of course, this takes us right to the heart of people’s values, culture, practicalities or spirituality.

It’s natural that we all consider what happens next.  Children will likely consider this, too, so we need to be ready to gently share a range of beliefs about death.  It can be difficult to talk about complex ideas in simple ways, and if you are struggling, you could try my book “Life is Like the Wind”, where I’ve tried to cover some of the beliefs and offer children possibilities for knowing and accepting their feelings.

Be prepared for talking and questions as young children try to make sense of tricky new concepts.  Children, especially young children, usually ask very straightforward questions and many adults are concerned about given children straightforward answers.

Children may want to know the practical questions…like “why are they in that box”, “why do they put a cross on the ground”, “why do people have to die”, or even “if the body is being buried, what will they do with the head”?

It’s great if children want to ask questions – it can indicate that they are trying to nut stuff out and make sense of it for themselves.  If your child has questions about death, it can sometimes feel like you are being put on the spot and it may open up some tightly pushed down grief of your own, but take time to answer.  If you cannot come up with a good answer, it’s always fine to suggest that together you might do some research or ask someone who may know a little more about things

Other children may not want to know anything or ask anything and that’s okay, too…just keep an eye out for them and a heart open for them in case they are keeping their feelings closely guarded.

If a child is attending a funeral service, be sure to give them a bit of a guide as to what to expect.  They should know that other people at the service will be feeling a range of feelings and that some may be crying or very upset.  Give them some ideas about whether they might need to sit or stand at certain times, that people will be talking about the person who has died, there may be pictures of the person who has died, there may be a coffin and the coffin might be opened or closed, there might be photos and music and, importantly, be sure to let them know what to do if they themselves get upset.

The thing about grief and kids is that as well as dealing with their own feelings, it’s highly likely that a child’s “go-to” people are also affected by the same loss.  Often the grown-ups in the situation are also managing their own big feelings which can mean that they may be less emotionally available.

Sometimes the grown-ups can even be less physically available if there is a lot for the adults to do after a death – organising, meeting, phoning, greeting well wishers…all takes time away from routine.  So, as well as the person who has died, the child can lose access to their usual support mechanism.  It can be useful during a time of intense grief that adults make a routine time to be available for their child.  Often, it helps if the shared time is around bedtime – because we all know how busy our heads can get about our fears and worries when we stop and try to be still and quiet at the end of the day.

Despite being associated with strong feelings (even strong feelings of not feeling!) and affecting our ability to function, grief in and of itself is not in our mental health manuals as a disorder.  That’s because it’s actually “normal” or typical to feel a range of emotions and experiences at the loss of a significant other.   Of course, if the sadness, upset, heaviness or numbness continues for too long without gradually lifting, please be sure to ask a professional for some help.


Resilient parents – how do we support parents to bounce back after life’s big stuff?

Resilience.  We hear a lot about resilience in children and about the idea of being able to raise children who bounce back after tough times.  These days, when I ask parents what they want for their children, they are less likely to say that they want them to have a good job, marry well or “stay out of trouble”. They are more likely to say that they want their child to be more resilient – to rebound from disappointments, stresses and traumas, to get along with others, and to respect themselves.

Obviously, parenting is an important part of raising a resilient child.  To be proactive, work as a team, be consistent, and use the most positive forms of discipline is more likely to breed resilience in children.  These things are good to know….but….

 It never ceases to amaze me how some children bounce back from the most traumatic and unhealthy circumstances – even some who are mistreated by their parents!

In the late 1980s, researchers have looked at children who’ve had tough times and bounced back.  In fact, they had become healthy parents themselves.  Those maltreated children fared better or recovered more successfully when they had a positive relationship with a competent adult, were good learners and problem-solvers, were engaging to other people, and had areas of competence and perceived efficacy.  Being valued by society, having intelligence, social skills, strong community/religious affiliations, positive school experiences, and  participation in therapy all helped.

So, if children can be assisted to bounce back after tough times, even the really tough times, what about parents?  How well do parents cope with the everyday rigor of life stress or how well do they bounce back from traumatic events?

We’ve all had tough days when we know we may not be parenting the way we normally do.  It is also likely that we’ve all had bigger events that “just a tough day”.  How have these big events in your life affected you and did they change the way you parented at all, for awhile or even forever?

Researchers at Melbourne’s RMIT have started to get their heads together to explore the ideas around what it might take for a parent to bounce back after a traumatic situation or stressful time and how  a parent can continue to be a competent parent when times are tough.

The researchers at RMIT, have reviewed the literature to date and have decided that the key to resilient parenting lies across four main areas.

  • Psychological well being – Parents who take care of their own mental health are best placed to bounce back from tough times. While this doesn’t mean that you leave your children alone at home because you need to have more good times with your friends, taking steps to seek treatment for any mental health concerns you experience and knowing your own pattern of coping and what you need to do in tough times is important.  Poor mental health can significantly impair parenting ability.
  • It is thought that parental self efficacy is central to being a resilient parent – Self efficacy is the confidence we have in our ability to do something. If we doubt our abilities, it may be that we have a harder times dealing with stressors.  Believing that you are a competent parent appears linked to positive outcomes for families.
  • Family functioning – Psychologists have long known the importance of trying to re-establish a routine in the lives of people who have been affected by trauma. Resilient parents provide their children with everyday activities and routines.  It seems that when we know what is likely to happen next (“It’s Monday, I have swimming lessons after school – I’ll need to pack my swimming gear”), we are more likely to settle back down into being able to do what we need to do.
  • Social connectedness – Just like young infants need to have a healthy attachment to a safe, warm adult – connectedness plays a protective role in times of crisis for grown-ups, too. We all benefit from being able to access practical and emotional support from friends and extended family.  It looks like adults who have good quality social connections are more resilient.

At this stage, we know that resilient parents take care of themselves so that they can continue to provide routine and structure for their family as well as stay connected to friends and extended family.

While it has might been said that it takes a village to raise a child, it seems that it takes a village to support parents to raise a child.

Parents who take care of their mental health, keep family routines and structure going, have faith in their ability, and faith that they will be supported, look to be those who bounce back from life’s hassles, setbacks and traumas.

First love and that first heartbreak – helping kids handle rejection

We have all likely experienced the agony of a broken heart and all found ourselves asking “why does it hurt so much?”  Humans are predominantly social creatures.  Even the most introverted among us can still crave intimate connection.  Our survival depends on being part of a group so it is not surprising that when we feel like we are excluded, rejected or someone is no longer a friend, we get strong signals in our body that can be quite alarming.

As infants and throughout our upbringing, we humans depend on secure relationships to meet, at first our basic need for food, warmth and shelter and, later, our more complex social, emotional needs.  It is well known that healthy parenting plays a part in developing adjustment.  Kids with a secure base from which to explore the world and explore other relationships are generally better adjusted than those without that secure base.

As we grow, we seek more intimate connections with others and, by the time we are well into our teens, we are seeking intimate relationships with what we hope might be a long time relationship.    Indeed many years ago, theorist Eric Erickson defined the teen years as those where the major developmental tasks is identity and then following that, intimacy.  It’s important that we work out who we are and what is important to us and then find connection.

It is perhaps a cruel twist of fate that adolescence is the time when we start to seek intimacy and also the time of our most strongly felt emotions.

It is very typical for teens to seek out the sweetest sweets, the dizziest risks and the most dramatic dramas.  Their brains and endocrines systems demand it.  I had heard that this drive to find more satisfaction is perhaps what eventually makes teens leave home and mix up the gene pool so we don’t get too inter-bred.

Biologically wired to find a mate, the teen is pre-programmed to seek out an intimate partner and to seek more adventure or take risks.  Feelings are strongly felt.  Love is dizzy and rejection is crushing.  One just has to review popular musical lyrics across generations to know that heartache and heartbreak are not new phenomena. Search for connection and dealing with rejections have long driven much human behaviour.

When you understand the biology and psychology of adolescence, it is clear that it is just cruel to dismiss the emotions of a heart-broken teen.

Indeed, it is actually problematic to not support young people through heart break – especially those teens who are rejection sensitive.

Researchers are telling us that some young people are more sensitive to rejection than others.  We don’t yet know why this might be.  Perhaps it’s linked to very early life events or even to individual temperament or as we get more aware about the influence of epigenetics. However, we know that those young people who are rejections sensitive are more prone to mental health concerns including depression and anxiety.  Some are more prone to get angry and some are prone to become more anxious.  The same researchers have learned that the association between rejection sensitivity and mental health concerns is affected by friends and family.  Outcomes are better when friends and family are supportive.

We need to help young people bounce back from romantic rejection and to help them know how to help each other when a friend’s heart is broken.

So, what to do?  Here are some tips….

  • Allow the person time to experience and feel the emotions.  While there are many feelings we don’t like to have, feelings always make sense and we often end up in bigger messes when we try not to feel something rather than just let the feeling come (This is probably why I so love the movie “Inside Out”).
  • Be sure the person has healthy means available to soothe themselves – some may need to talk about it repeatedly for what feels like forever, some might want to hide in bed (don’t let this go on for too long and try to encourage exposure to daylight), they may want to watch sad movies with you, listen to sad songs, go for long walks or if they are angry, encourage some vigorous exercise and some pillow punching.  While it may feel like the Aussie way, don’t offer alcohol.  Offer company – the “be with you” type not the “demand things of you” type.
  • When the time is right (when they can talk about it without running off or shutting down), offer the chance to discuss the relationship and what they may have learned from it about themselves and about others and what they might take into the future.  Discourage revenge or stalking ideas. Encourage paying some attention to the things that are important to them in life or that they may be good at or that make them feel good.

Shona’s golden rule is “don’t make yourself feel better by making someone else feel worse – make yourself feel better by doing better things for you or others”

  • Get practical, too.  Help them handle the likelihood of bumping into this person and come up with a little plan or even some personal growth challenges when this occurs.  Make sure that you include a plan to manage bumping into them on social media, too.
  • If you think that they are at risk of doing something dangerous or if you think the heartbreak is taking too long to begin to repair, assist the person to access some professional help.  If they ever threaten to hurt themselves, even if it is a message you get on social media in the middle of the night, be sure to contact someone who can actually keep them safe right then and there (a parent or even an ambulance).  A psychologist can get to know them, understand why things might be taking longer and help them take steps to adjust.
  • Try to avoid avoidance.  Keep an eye on them to make sure that they are not avoiding future relationships.

The joy of a healthy, loving and long-term relationship with ourselves, another or a community is well worth some practice runs along the way.