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#AskAlyson: Swearing

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My 12 year old hurls the most foul insults at us when he is angry and it has to stop! I am worried his 8 year brother is learning terrible words and behaviours from his brother who he looks up to.  I was thinking of taking away his tech time – but during a pandemic I thought that was too harsh, so thought we might try a “swear jar” where you charge them money for swearing and collect it in a jar.  Thoughts?


Concern Dad,


Dear Concerned Dad.


Has the swear jar worked yet?  I have not heard of anyone having success with it.  When kids are so angry and dysregulated, they are invested in winning a fight or hurting the other person at any cost.  Words become weapons when we go into a battle. The older our children become the better they get at using words to inflict pain.  When they are 4 they may say “you’re not coming to my birthday party!” but by age 14 its more likely “you F^%$&* jerk face”.


The goal is to reduce your family conflicts and work to resolve disagreements and problems in the family peacefully.  The best way to do that is through effective communication and problem solving at family meetings.


So, the next time he swears in a moment of anger, I would keep your calm.  In fact – the more dysregulated he gets, the calmer and more equanimity you must have.   Do some active listening and say something like:  “It looks to me like you are really super angry with me and you really want to hurt my feelings and win this fight.  I love you and I want to help get your needs met in the family, so let’s talk about this important issue at a family meeting please.” If they continue to spew insults, I would say “I will not stand in the face of disrespect” and walk away calmly.


Of course, this tactic only provides relief for families who are actually HAVING family meetings, so I encourage you to start having them now and hold them regularly.


Work to improve matters in the relationship with the child that is swearing because when the relationship is strong and healthy, we don’t have a desire to attack the other person viciously with our words.  The swearing is the symptom – not the problem.


Also, don’t worry about his younger brother.  It is an unfair burden to place on an older child to expect them to behave a certain way for the sake of a sibling.  It could create animosity in their brother relationship.  They are NOT responsible for another person’s choice of behavior.  If his younger brothers swears, the younger brother is responsible for making that choice independently and should be fully accountable for it too.


Last point of clarification.  A swear jar is actually punitive not a consequence.  Consequences must have the 4 R’s (thanks Jane Nelson of Positive Discipline for this easy way to remember!).  The 4 R’s are:  Related to the behaviour, Reasonable, Respectful and Revealed in advance.  A swear jar has 3 of the 4 – but it’s just not related.  If its not related, its arbitrary.  If it is arbitrary it means it is being laid down from an authority above who is controlling you with exacting a suffering if you don’t behave the way they will. Its oppressive and children may submit short term, but no one suffers being in the inferior position and no one wants to co-operate with someone who is dominating or thwarting them.


That may be a longer answer than you expected!  You probably wanted a quick yes or no. LOL.  Hopefully some of the rationale behind theory is helpful in implementing it.


Be well, and thanks for the question.  Send in another one anytime!



About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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