Behavior & Development • Aug 27, 2015

A Case of the “Dang Its”: Dealing with a Toddler’s Bad Words

TerribleTwos“Dang it! Dang it! DANG IT!” my two-year-old son yelled in the middle of the crowded store. Then he immediately turned to see my facial expression, wondering what response he would get. Unfortunately, I made the ultimate mistake – I laughed, then I gently scolded him. My response immediately told him that the phrase was both bad and funny. That moment marked the beginning of my son’s case of the “dang its,” one that lasted for several months despite our best efforts.

We are not sure where he first heard it. I like to blame Grandma, but it easily could have been from me. In hindsight, we were actually pretty lucky. He could have picked up much worse phrases, but it was frustrating nonetheless. After the initial introduction of “dang it,” we tried to stop the behavior by saying, “That is not a nice word. We don’t use that word.” Unfortunately, my toddler has the reasoning skills of – well, a toddler. He likely saw this as another boundary that he could test. Next, we tried intermittent time-outs to help him calm down. That just led to him crying, saying “dang it” between sobs. The situation started to seem ridiculous. I am a pediatrician for goodness’ sake. It is my job to give advice to parents on a daily basis, but my son was not impressed with my credentials. Finally, we resorted to ignoring his behavior with the hope that it will go away eventually. He was not directing the bad language at other children, and “dang it” was not that heinous. Over several months, this has started to work, though there are still occasional relapses.

If you have read any of my other articles, you know that I try to find solutions to common parenting challenges by digging into the research. So I searched through PubMed for any recent articles. The results: exactly ZERO studies on extinguishing bad language in toddlers. Any recent articles related to toddlers and language were focused on early detection of autism. Without any relevant research at hand, I was relegated to the next tier of evidence – expert opinion. As you can imagine, the internet is full of opinions, but few of them are expert. After searching around, I found several lists with different versions of the same advice. Here is my spin on the best pieces of advice:

How to Handle Bad Language in Toddlers

Don’t laugh and don’t yell Toddlers thrive on attention, whether positive or negative. Laughing or yelling at their bad words only reinforces the behavior. As an alternative, you can place extra emphasis on their positive behaviors.
Choose your battles wisely It is certainly appropriate to set limits, but make sure the battle is worth fighting. If the cursing is directed at someone, that should be a “red line.” But in other situations, ignoring may serve you best.
Be consistent with rules and consequences If you set a limit, then be sure to follow up with a reasonable consequence. Toddlers have a knack for sighting weakness… By all means, never reward the bad language (for example, giving them candy in the store so they will stop yelling @#%$$!).
Model the behavior you want to instill Teach your children to respect other people and not to use insults. The best way to teach this is by modeling respectful behavior yourself. This may require saving certain conversations for behind closed doors rather than the dinner table.
Watch your own mouth You cannot protect your children from the stray words of a stranger, but you can at least keep the language clean inside your house.
Ask for help If these approaches get you nowhere, talk to your pediatrician. You may need extra support or some fresh ideas.

 

But remember, each situation is different and each child is different. There are times when it is best to let an episode pass without acknowledging the language, and there are other times when the behavior needs to be addressed immediately. As always, parenting is difficult game of educated guesses and blind luck. My best advice is to stay calm, be patient, and do what you think is best. This approach is starting to work for us.

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