Insights

The Curse of Teen Swearing

by Gina Roberts-Grey

If you feel like crying foul over your teen’s language, don’t despair. Gaining insight into why teenagers choose the words they do will help your campaign to clean up that potty mouth.

“Many young people resort to swearing as a means to try to demonstrate their level of maturity,” explains retired Northern Illinois University psychology professor Francis Compton, PhD. Now a mentor and lecturer, Dr. Compton has spent more than 30 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 Dr. Compton.

TV Curses Imitated
In one of his studies, Dr. Compton learned that a surprising 87 percent of children ages 12-19 group curse words into categories of severity. When asked to make their own list of words they deem inappropriate, study participants classified common and sometimes harsh or graphic words by the word’s perceived strength or meaning.

“The vast majority said that using mild or moderate curse words, often heard on television, was not actually swearing,” says Dr. Compton. “In fact, many felt that vulgar slang or profanities heard on television were a normal and acceptable aspect of everyday language.”

Melanie Laytham’s Smithville, NJ family falls into Professor Compton’s majority. Stunned by what she heard her 13-year-old son mutter in disgust to himself when he was trying to solve a math assignment, she immediately questioned him on his choice of words.

“I’ll never forget his reply,” she says. “Hearing him say ‘It’s no big deal mom. It’s not like I’m really swearing,’ I wondered how I failed to instill good values. He didn’t feel that what he said was a curse word because he regularly hears it on television.”

Believing that only “bad” kids curse, many parents share a popular misconception that “good” children with strong morals and values do not say inappropriate words.
An overwhelming number of children use off-color language in notes that are passed between classes, while describing an event during lunch or study hall, and when communicating with friends socially.

“We are continually reminding students to tone down their language during passing periods or sports practices,” says Christine Nenni, PhD, a retired Philadelphia high school dean. A random sampling of notes Nenni 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.

What You Can Do
“Parents can help instill healthier ways of expressing and developing maturity,” says licensed family therapist Dave Longo of Wilingboro, NJ.

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 Longo, the father of three grown children.
When teens realize that vulgarity or excessive slang has an effect that is ironically opposite than their desired perception of maturity, they are less inclined to taint their vocabulary with swearing.

“Help your teen find an intelligent means to express himself, and thus demonstrate true maturity, to curb swearing and help him achieve his desired goal” suggests Longo.

Experts also suggest modeling non-offensive language. “Reinforcing positive expressions of various emotions shows there’s another way to say same the same thing,” says Longo.

Of course, even we adults can occasionally let a curse slip. Acknowledging that you’re aware you made a regrettable word choice helps teens respect the lessons you’re aiming to instill. “Demon-strating your remorse for using a curse word offers your teen a glimpse into your humanistic persona,” says Dr. Compton. “Your teen will build respect for you and your ideals.”

Additionally, helping your teen realize there are consequences to all of her actions, including swearing, provides another deterrent.

A curse word cookie jar works miraculously. If your teen has to pay a predetermined “toll” for every profanity used, he might think twice about spending his allowance to curse. “After a few weeks of paying for their language, most teens decide to give up swearing as it’s so expensive!” Longo happily proclaims.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer.