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How to Handle Bad Language in Toddlers

Written by Kathryn Wright, M.D. on May 20, 2017, 8:08:00 AM

Many of us have done it. We’ve slipped and said a not-so-nice word in passing to another adult in front of a toddler, forgetting that toddlers are little sponges, soaking up everything we’re saying and doing. You might not have realized you’ve even done this until the daycare calls with questions about your child’s new colorful vocabulary. While it obviously needs to be corrected, don’t stress out over it – this happens all the time. Here are some ways to handle bad language in toddlers. 

Be a Good Example

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You already know this, but toddlers mimic. It’s how they begin to understand their place in the world as tiny humans. If they’ve learned an off-color word from you or another adult around them, it wouldn’t be the first time that it’s happened, but make an effort to curb that sort of language when they’re within ear shot. Also, they always seem to be in ear shot. If you do accidentally say something you’d rather them not repeat, acknowledge it, take responsibility and move on. Try saying, “That was a bad word. I shouldn’t have said it and I apologize.” Another thing that’s important to keep in mind is that, even if it’s a little funny when your toddler let’s a four-letter word slip when he can’t find his crayons, do not laugh. Laughing at the behavior will only encourage it and you’ll find it much more difficult to put an end to later. 

Not All “Bad Language” Is Four Letter Words

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You’ll find pretty quickly there are some things you don’t want your child saying, even if they’re not your standard, run-of-the-mill curse words. Hearing them call someone “stupid” or “ugly,” is an example of language you want to nip in the bud quickly. When you hear them talking this way, try to get to the root of what they’re feeling, tell them that you won’t allow certain words to be said, explain how words can make people feel and give them options for replacement words. For example, if your daughter calls their friend stupid, try explaining that words like that can make people sad, and that you don’t expect her to intentionally make anyone sad. You can tell her that the word “stupid” is off limits. Ask her what her friend did to frustrate her and offer her another word that better expresses her feelings. This way, you’re teaching them the emotional quality of words in addition to broadening their vocabulary and understanding of their own feelings. 

Don’t Give Them A Response

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Children look to you for literally everything – and one of their favorite things to do is make you laugh. Do not do it. Another thing children do is act out for your attention. If they’re cursing in an attempt to do this (after you’ve explained to them that the words aren’t allowed), don’t give in to them. Don’t get angry about their language, because sometimes showing them that they can get any reaction out of you is enough to encourage the behavior. Instead, explain to them calmly that the word they used isn’t nice and is not a word they are allowed to use in front of people. You need to explicitly tell them where they aren’t allowed to use words because “that’s a bad word” or “we don’t use that kind of language” is a little vague for a child to understand. Above all, be consistent – once they learn that they won’t get a response from you, they will likely stop. 


Dr. Wright is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Summer Creek Clinic in Humble. Child obesity, newborn care, and ADHD are among her top clinical interests. Being around kids makes every day at work fun for her.



Topics: how to handle bad language in toddlers

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