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!

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