Ten-year old Kaytie asks innocently, “Mom, why do teenagers use swear words?”

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.

Gaining insight into why they choose the words they do will help you to help your teen better express themself.

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 of demonstrating 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 as being 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 the 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.”

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. If eighty-two percent of children in urban environments, seventy-nine percent of children in suburban areas and seventy-three percent of children in rural areas admit to using curse words at least three times a day, parents can begin to understand that the urge to curse is widespread. “Regardless of where they live, or of their 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. 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 free 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 plane's 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 increase their vocabulary

“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 their developing maturity.” The first step to cleaning up teen talk is listening to your teen. “When you ascertain in what scenarios and environments they typically swear, you can help them find alternative ways of expressing themselves in those situations,” 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 fairly representative of the beliefs of his peers.

Realizing that her son and his friends were trying to outdo 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 effect that is ironically opposite to their desired perception of maturity, they are less inclined to taint their vocabulary with swearing. “Helping your teen find intelligent means to express themself, and thus demonstrate true maturity, will both curb swearing and help them achieve their 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 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 to give up swearing. It was just too expensive!” Boyer happily proclaims.

This article was written by: Gina Roberts-Grey LCSW

Photo Credit: Flo Karr