Help your teen clean up his language

Written by Gina Roberts-Grey LCSW

family_swear“Mom, why do teenagers use swear words?” innocently asks ten year old Kaytie. This child’s question is one that many parents ask themselves, their friends and families virtually every day.  Whether overhearing a teen talking on the phone, chatting with a friend in the basement, or in the heat of an argument between siblings, parents of teens often find themselves looking for options to curb their teen’s vocabulary. If your  teen’s language leaves you needing to purchase teen mouth sized bars of soap, don’t despair.  Gaining insight into why they choose the words they do will help you to help your teen clean up his potty mouth!

Trying to sound mature

Kaytie is the youngest of three children.  With a nearly eighteen year old sister, and a fifteen year old brother, her mother Katrina wistfully shares her youngest child’s curiosity surrounding teen cursing.  “It’s ironic that she’s appalled.  Her sister and brother were once also shocked to hear a teen swearing” says Katrina, “now they use the very same words they once rebuffed.”  The family’s circumstances are not uncommon.

“Many young people resort to swearing as a means to try to demonstrate their level of maturity” explains retired psychology Professor Dr. Francis Compton PhD.  Now a mentor and lecturer, Dr. Compton has spent more than thirty years studying and understanding the social behaviors of adolescents in Australia, England and North America.  “Children and young adults mistakenly equate verbal demonstrations with a level of maturity.  They honestly believe they’re perceived older if they use words typically associated with adults” says Compton.

Who’s saying what?

In one of Professor Compton’s many studies, he learned that a surprising 87% of children ages 12 to 19 group curse words into categories of severity.  When asked to make their own list of words they deem inappropriate, the 855 participants of a 2000 study classified common and sometimes harsh or graphic words by the word’s perceived strength or meaning.  “It was interesting and insightful to learn that the vast majority cited that using mild or moderate curse words, often heard on television, was not actually swearing” says Compton as he explains his findings “in fact, many felt that vulgar slang or profanities heard on television were a normal and acceptable aspect of everyday language.”

Melissa Reid’s Ithaca, New York family falls into Professor Compton’s majority.  Stunned by what she heard her twelve year old daughter mutter in disgust to herself when she was trying to solve a math assignment, she immediately questioned Tiffanie on her choice of words.  “I’ll never forget her reply” says Melissa, “when she said ‘It’s no big deal mom.  It’s not like I’m really swearing’ I wondered how I failed to instill good values” she openly admits.  Believing that only ‘bad’ kids use profanity, Reid shares a popular misconception that parents of ‘good’ children with strong morals and values do not say inappropriate words.

Compton’s extensive research also concluded that use of profanity didn’t vary greatly from rural, urban or suburban areas.  When you compare the eighty two percent of children in urban environments, seventy nine percent of children in suburban area and the seventy three percent of children in rural areas who admit to using curse words at least three times a day, parents can begin to understand that the urge to curse does not discriminate.  “Regardless of where they live, social or economic circumstances, teens want to feel mature, and be revered.  They believe swearing helps them to swiftly accomplish this goal” Professor Compton adds.

Where they swear

An overwhelming number of children use mature language in notes that are passed between classes, while describing an event during lunch or study hall, and when communicating with friends socially.  Dr. Anne Hoffman, PhD is the Dean of Students at a Boston, MA high school.  “We are continually reminding students to tone down their language during passing periods or sports practices” says Dr. Hoffman.  A random sampling of notes Hoffman has collected from the floors of her school’s halls shows teens swear to describe animosity toward a peer or a maneuver they mastered on the playing field.

Timothy DeBlauw is the owner of a franchise coffeehouse in New York, NY that is frequented by many teenagers throughout the day.  “It’s amazing how many kids casually toss out profanity as though they’re asking someone to pass the sugar.  There are times it can be bad for business because of our diverse clientele.  Parents stopping in with young children are generally appalled at how many of the teens speak” explains DeBlauw.

A flight attendant for over ten years, Cindy Krull overhears young people using curse words as they wait for access to the planes’ lavatory or out of frustration with the in-flight movie selection.  “I immediately always wonder if that’s how my own children speak away from home” Krull says.  Knowing where our teens swear is helpful, but it is not enough to change their behavior.

Helping teens develop their language

“Teens equate swearing to a rite of passage” says Brent Pearlman MSW of Libertyville, IL “as parents we can help them learn healthier ways of expressing and developing maturity.”  The first step to cleaning up teen talk is listening to your teen.  “When you ascertain in what scenarios and environments he typically swears, you can help him find alternatives to express himself” says Pearlman himself the father of two young daughters.

Does your teen try to project confidence or superiority when he swears?  Does she demonstrate anguish, disgust or disdain in herself or peers with cursing?   Do you hear your teen causally and subconsciously dropping profanities intermittently throughout casual conversations?  Knowing the prime times your teen swears will help you choose a course of action to clean up the cursing.

Why swear?

Teens frequently opt for strong language as the result of peer pressure.  When she asked her fifteen year old son Matthew why he selects such strong language to convey his point of view, Susan from Toronto was astonished by her teen’s straightforward answer.  “I talk just like all my friends.  We don’t mean anything and it’s not like adults don’t say those things” was Matthew’s enlightening response.  Although it may appear cavalier, Matthew’s explanation is familiarly synonymous with beliefs of his peers.

Realizing that her son and his friends were trying to out-do each other in a ritual game of whose language packs the most shock value, Susan decided she wanted to break her son’s habit of vulgarity.  “We talked about better ways he could grab his friend’s and acquaintance’s attention,” states Susan “I tried to impress that acting older didn’t automatically mean someone would believe he’s mature.”

Many parents like Susan and Reid also find explaining that swearing is not an impressive trait or something that is respected and admired provides clarity. When teens realize that vulgarity or excessive slang has an affect that is ironically opposite than their desired perception of maturity, they are less inclined to taint their vocabulary with swearing.  “Helping your teen find an intelligent means to express himself, and thus demonstrate true maturity, will both curb swearing and help him achieve his desired goal” suggests Pearlman.

Experts like Pearlman also suggest parents model the language they expect their teens and tweens to utilize. “Reinforcing positive expressions of various emotions lets teens know there’s another way to same the same thing” offers Pearlman.  Of course, we’re all human and can possibly accidentally or occasionally let a slang word slip.  The frustration of stalled traffic or of dropping a heavy can on top of your foot can cause the most restrained individual to use an inappropriate word.

Acknowledging that you’re aware you made a regrettable word choice helps teens respect the lessons you’re aiming to instill.  “Demonstrating your remorse for using a curse word offers your teen a glimpse into your humanistic persona” says Dr. Compton “your teen will build a greater respect for you and your ideals.”

Additionally helping your teen realize there are consequences to all of his actions — including swearing — provides another deterrent.  If your teen has to pay a predetermined ‘fee’ or ‘toll’ for every profanity used, he may think twice about spending his hard earned allowance on curse words.  A curse word cookie jar worked miraculously for Susan Boyer’s son.  “After a few weeks of paying for his language, he decided he’s give up swearing.  It was just too expensive!’ Boyer happily proclaims.

22 Responses to “Help your teen clean up his language”

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Thanks Theresa, that sounds like a very healthy path to take for parenting teens. Teen years are a time for transition into adulthood and our parenting needs to reflect that transition. Emphasizing why behaviours need to be modified and helping them to make good choices is a big part of that. When that is done within the context of unquestionable love there is great potential for teens to mature well.

  • Theresa says:

    I have a 14 year old…he’s our only child. This age has been the toughest but we are getting through it as we are both exercising ways to allow him to grow but with boundaries. I found that he was using vulgar and swear words on texts with school friends. While I freaked out to myself and I had to think about how to approach this instead of freaking out to him as I knew this would not help the situation. Although social media is a way for some to “sneak” their way into the world of teen swearing…I decided to first make him aware that me and his dad knew what was being said. That was a shocker on his end. Second, we modified s few rules…although he isn’t allowed to have FB or SnapChat, he added SC w/out permission and thus this is where we saw vulgar notes to friends. We banned this app and now view his activity on his phone daily opposed to previously “once in a while”. I strongly believe that open communication with your child is crucial…let them know that there are other ways/words to express themselves without demeaning themselves from speaking like a truck driver(excuse the example). While expression is important and crucial during this time for them, it’s important to be by their side and discuss options rather than get upset and place s wedge in between you and your teen. It’s tough but possible. Good luck to all my fellow teen parents. This will soon pass. Just love your child, be there for them and give plenty of hugs…

  • Tom Tom says:

    Hopefully you are able to rise above your peers and use language that is appropriate within all of society. I think the article explains well why teens in particular swear, and I think as much as anything it’s a sign of immaturity.

    As our society continues its moral melt-down, I’m sure we’ll hear more and more of this. Television is certainly filled with it anymore, and obviously parents do little to contradict the trend. Maybe you and other teens could start a group–maybe an anti-swearing club–that could be an example to others.

  • Becca says:

    As a 16 year old, I think kids cuss and swear because society has made it normal to do so, pretty much all kids cuss and talk vulgar these days, it’s considered normal. Maybe some kids talk badly to sound mature, however I don’t think that’s the case most of the time, I think they cuss because they are used to it- everyone at school does it.

  • Tom Tom says:

    Thanks for your comments and observations.

    Maybe you can answer this for me–Why do you think the teens tend to use vulgar language? Is it a desire to “fit in?” Are they wanting to sound “grown up?” What do you think the reason is, and is that a good reason?

  • Miranda says:

    Im 16 years old and I would like to say that, maybe using bad language can get the teenagers or other kids into trouble but on the other hand; bad language are just words rather they are disrespectful or not. It maybe be offensive to others but mostly other people are fine with that. I may be a teenagers that don’t know much but that doesn’t mean that I cant say this. And this is what I think. But, it’s also a bad habit using bad language around others that are not okay with it.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    That is a very intriguing insight Mike. I can see that communication with your peers is more effective using language that they are familiar with. Do you think there is value in modelling a vocabulary for your peers that goes beyond their common vernacular? Can one voice or a small minority of voices have a refining influence on the greater community?

  • Mike says:

    I am a 14 year old male. I am also in speech and debate, and a good debater at that. (Last year, as middle schoolers, my partner and I broke into octafinals at the national tournament held in Texas.) Even as a debater, with incredulous amounts of vocabulary, I still find it difficult not to swear. I find it difficult to be understood by the majority of my peers. I actually have to stop myself to think about how to express what I am about to say in more simple terms tan “An absolutely ridiculous concept beyond all reason” or “An interesting conceptual solution to the issue at hand.” In a scenario in which I am trying to express emotion to my peers, I find they understand ‘cuss words’ Significantly more than a chain of immensely difficult to describe emotions. It is a dialect, a ‘second mode’ of language if you will. Something I use when there is a lack of a more poignant term. They key is not to eradicate it from someone’s vocabulary, but to make it understood that swearing is only acceptable in certain spheres.

  • Chris says:

    barbara….sorry to hear of your struggles. controlling our tongues is something we all have to battle in many different ways so you arent alone in this. personally i have found that jesus words in the bible are true, that what comes out of our mouths first comes from our hearts which means only a change of heart will bring a change of vocabulary with it. to experience a new change in your heart and speech i would recommend you logging onto or clicking talk to a mentor above so you can learn how to give your heart and words to jesus and obtain victory in your life in that way and in all ways to live for his glory and honor. praying you would and that today would be the day to allow jesus into your life forever. blessings!

  • Barbara says:

    Im 45 years old, and still have the filthy mouth syndrome which only comes out when i have to deal with [expletive removed]. Outside of that, i’m a peach with the sweetest words. lol

  • cfast says:

    Hi B easy,

    I’m sorry to hear that school is such a drag for you. However, just think about the fact that you only have 1 year left! I think it is amazing that you are already producing your own music and making a business out of it. Is that where your heart lies? Is that your passion? Keep in mind that it is much more important in the long run to be happy with your job and what you are doing in life than pleasing others and doing a job someone else wants you to do. However, it is also wise to get some sort of post-secondary schooling to give you that much more training. From my experience, when you are doing what you love, you won’t feel like it is a chore or work. Would you and your parents consider talking about you taking music producing (or whatever truly interests you) in post-secondary rather than just a normal degree of some sort? I am sure you will find it much more fulfilling to take something that you are already passionate about. Focus on getting through your last year, focus on pursuing your dream, and hopefully you will find some motivation!

  • Claire Colvin Claire Colvin says:

    Hi B,

    Music is not something that just anyone can do. If it’s something you’re passionate about and it gets dismissed by your parents that must be incredibly frustrating. I can understand that. I would guess that your Mom’s main concern is that she wants you to get an education. You said that you already got into five schools and are currently failing all your classes. I STRONGLY urge you to get your grades back up. Take a look at those acceptance letters. This time of year they almost guaranteed to be what’s called a “Conditional Acceptance”. It means that as long as you keep your grades up they’re happy to have you. However, if you finish out the semester failing your classes two things are likely to happen: 1. You won’t graduate and 2. Those five schools will withdraw their offers.

    You sound like a smart guy, so do the smart thing. Get back to school, get your grades back up and make sure that come September all five of those schools are still ready to welcome you with open arms. Does that mean that you stop your music? Not at all. But don’t do it at the expense of your senior year. Getting to go to college is an incredible privilege. I don’t know if it feels like that for you right now, but trust me, it really is. Graduating from college opens up doors that you can’t get through any other way. College graduates have more choices. And one of those choices can be music.

    You said that you need motivation – college is your ticket to getting to choose. You said that your Mom wants you to go into law. Law is not a program that starts in your first year. Many, probably most, college students change their major at least one during their four years of school. So go class now so you can go to college in the fall and try a whole bunch of stuff. Figure out what it is that you want to do. Any college will have music classes, some even have music business classes. See if one of those fits into your studies.

    I don’t know your Mom but I wonder if maybe the reason she’s dissing your music is that she’s scared. She saw her son go from getting the kind of grades that get you into five schools to barely showing up at school at all. She’s going to wonder what the reason for that is, what changed, and she might be afraid that you’re throwing your chance away and that music is the reason why. If that’s the case then it makes sense that she would be angry about the music. Find a balance. Yes, do what you love but also, you have to get your grades back up.

    Also, remember that you need to respect your parents, even when you’re mad, even if they are wrong. They love you. They house you and feed you and they deserve your respect. You sound like you’re ready to make some of your own choices. To get respect you need to be respectful. Prove to your Mom that you can be trusted to choose well by choosing well now. Think about what you want to do with your music and know that college can help you do that. But right now you are standing in your own way. Get back to class, apologize to your mother, and make some incredible music. I promise it’s worth it.

  • B eazy says:

    Hi, I’m an 18 year old male. I am a respectful and trusting person to be around. However, when it comes to my parents, my attitude does a complete 180 turn. I produce music as a hobby and already am receiving money offers so my focus is on that and I could give 2 **** about senior year considering I already got into 5 schools and had great semester 1 grades. This is what causes the raging. My mom believes I am wasting my time worrying about my music when it is the only thing in life I am passionate about, so, this causes tension and cursing and breaking on my part everytime she gets on me about it. I said F*** You today to her when she said music is a waste of time and anyone can do it. I am currently failing all my classes and I only go to school 2-3 days a week (missing tomorrow also) lol . So I caught between a rock and a hard place for my future…I hate school and what my mom thinks (law) is my best option I absolutely detest anything academic and can only find happiness in making a beat

    I am stuck with… NO MOTIVATION for anything school related ( idont even smoke pot)
    Help plz!

  • Nithin says:

    The main reason is teenagers act himself to show or express or prove be a strongest, Hardest, Brave Leader.
    and consciously or unconsciously they searching to how to prove I’m the leader of strongest, hardest, bravest, fretful, cheerful, leader.
    therefor they acting with their most sincere places.

    where this limitations facing child’s and teenagers on their life.
    and how to overcome their immature confidences.

    first we support teenagers and give lot of loving confidences and consider their attitudes, behaviors, talents.

    and first thing is you don’t teach your child they naturally learned your behaviors.
    therefor be sure we walking in the right ways. so we just help to choosing the correct ways on their life’s.

    because if you not consider their talents and their grasping powers.
    they will try to express their talents and grasping powers more strongly on out side of the home or in the home. may be that time they using ways are not corrected but unfortunately we can’t to lead their ways because they don’t want others couching class they feel short and insulting himself.

    so simply understand their talents and attitudes and consider with loving values.
    they will comes to care first you :)

  • Andrew says:


    WOW. If you read the scriptures it is very clear that swearing is against God’s will as it is on one of the 10 commandments. What a person says reveals what is in the mind and often the words that come out are of sexual nature as well as using God’s name in vain. You demean yourself by swearing as it is vulgure and should never become a part of society. Just because society accepts it does not make it pure.

  • Doris Beck Doris says:

    Liam I would disagree with you totally. Swearing doesn’t add any level of communication to a conversation and as a parent and grandparent, I have the authority and responsibility to help my children and grandchildren to be the best they can be in every area of their lives which definitely includes their speech.

    I’m not sure where you got the idea that swearing is slowly becoming something that isn’t rude anymore. Although you hear it on TV and in movies, in the real world there are many, many places where swearing is considered totally unacceptable. In professional circles it is never considered acceptable and if my children and grandchildren hope to be working in that circle then it is will be much easier if they don’t have to ‘clean’ up their language in order to do it.

  • Liam says:

    This is terrible. Swearing seen as a bad thing is all imaginary. If people just took them like other words, than there would be no criticism. Charging them for swearing is wrong. It is stealing, and against freedom of speech. Just because they’re your offspring doesn’t mean that they should do whatever you want from them. Languange is changing. Swearing is slowly becoming something that isn’t rude anymore. This article is against the name of the website. Give your kids back 4 times the money you charged for swearing. People wonder why teens commit suicide.

  • Doris Beck Doris says:

    I think you are quite right HTDWC…that teens want to be perceived as older and more mature and since they hear adults all around them cursing, that is the accepted way to communicate.

    As a parent and grandparent I would also have to agree that we can teach them the importance of of the words that we use. The challenge is always before us.

  • […] most prominent of these reasons is their need to be perceived as older and more mature.  Many teenagers see swearing as a “rite of passage” and are heavily influenced by their peers. As parents, we can teach them the importance of word […]

  • Sarah says:

    As a teenager myself, I’ve gotta say that I agree 100% with this article about why kids swear; you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    But as for the
    “pay a predetermined ‘fee’ or ‘toll’ for every profanity used, he may think twice about spending his hard earned allowance on curse words.”
    I’d like to caution parents that while they may not cuss at home anymore, a lot of kids will do it even more than they had been away from home because they’re trying to prove to themselves that they know more than their parents. I know that until God had done a major overhaul in my life I did.

    Just something to think about :)

  • LeAnna says:

    As parents we need to be their first teacher, it has the most impact.

  • Bailey says:

    this is all wrong kids dont swear because it makes them feel older they swear because they have stronger emotions…and need better words to describe what they are feeling…swear words are the best thing they find.

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