When your toddler stomped her foot and called you a “poopy head,” you probably were amused. But when an older child swears at parents, it’s an altogether different feeling. However, says parenting expert Amy Speidel, both actions are coming from the same place in our children. In this series of four videos, Speidel offers parents ways to handle teenagers swearing, at parents or otherwise.
Video #1: Don’t Speak to Me Like That
Transcript: When your child first swears at that you there’s a good chance that they’re still small enough that you take responsibility for that. They heard it from somebody. You’re not exactly sure who—maybe it was the neighbor kid?—but there’s a good chance that you understand that they’re just trying out new words
However, when they get to that tween teen age and they use a swear word it feels personal. So we start to have this response to it that says: “I don’t deserve to be treated this way by you.” And there are a couple different ways that kids use swear words. One of the main ways that we use a swear word is it slips out when we are emotionally entangled ourselves. So just like adults, teens use those swear words when they feel at a loss about how to feel empowered.
So think about the time when maybe a word slipped out of your mouth. That’s what happens for them as well. They feel the pressure oven at moment when they don’t have anything more relevant to say to plead their case and then it’s “Well, you’re a fill in the blank.” And when that happens we feel attacked, instead of recognizing they’ve gone over the edge and the emotional upset is just that great.
How do we how we respond to that? You say to a teenager whose just said, “Well, you’re just whatever it is they just said.” You recognize they are in an emotional state and they’re having a challenge right now. So instead of joining them in that and giving them your lecture about how you don’t talk to me that way and I’m not but putting up with that crap from you and perhaps even swearing back at them. Stop. Take a very deep breath and you say “I don’t appreciate being spoken to that way. It seems like you can use a moment to just regain your yourself. And then we’ll talk again.” So give them a moment to step away and take their own check of “Is this the person I truly want to?” rather than blaming and shaming them in that moment. Let them have that moment.
Video #2: I Am So Insulted
Transcript: When a teenager swears at you, it is hard not to feel that this is a personal attack and they mean it as a personal attack so no wonder it feels that way. As the adult, when we experience that we feel the betrayal. We feel the separation of: this person is supposed to love me and care about me and you wouldn’t want your friend or spouse saying that kind of stuff to you. Here’s a person that you birthed, who you care about deeply and they can use those kinds of harsh words.
And, again, it’s not just the words of course. It’s the look. It’s the feel of you’re a complete failure and so we absorb it. It’s the same kind of thing if you go back in time to you know the first time that you’re at that your preschooler called you a “poopy-head” or said “I hate you.” There’s a certain feeling of, How could that be happening between us when I love you so much. It’s important to remember that teens can be overwhelmed by the experience that they’re having internally. And the only way that they know how to convey that to us, sometimes, is to have us feel the same way. So when you feel that complete dismantling remember that they’re sharing with you what they’re feeling in that moment. They’re feeling completely dismantled. They’re feeling completely disregarded and unheard and unempowered.
So the way that we respond to it is first and foremost get yourself out of the situation. Say, “This is hard for me. It feels very disrespectful. I’ll be back.” Then get yourself out of the space. Go to someplace where you can relax your own heart rate. Take your heart rate down. Pay attention to your breathing and then pay attention to the message. Is this really about me? Or is this more about them feeling trapped as a teenager in this situation where they don’t have the kind of power that they really want to have and they’re frustrated and they don’t know how to get through? When you come back, you’re going to be able to guide them through that emotion rather than blame them for having it. Because again, swear words are just the capstone on this is how I’m feeling in this moment.
Video #3: The Verbal Exclamation Mark
Transcript: In our society, swearing has become something that is kind of like the verbal exclamation mark. So it puts the cap on, “This is how seriously I feel about this!” And if we use it as that kind of exclamation mark, as punctuation, then it has some relevance to how important this is.
It’s when it becomes routine, when everything is an exclamation mark, instead of the times when it’s really needed. So sometimes, when kids are using a swear word, and again depending on how severe that word tends to be, sometimes it’s a way to let you know this is really that hard for me. And again, think, As an adult has a word ever escaped your mouth? And isn’t it appropriate that when it does it feels like that inside? Kids use it the same way. It doesn’t mean we’re validating it. It doesn’t mean that we’re saying, “This is appropriate in our house.” What we’re saying is, “Yes this is a way to express how serious this feels.”
So if your child says, oh whatever it is, we won’t say it on camera. But all those words that we’ve all said occasionally in the heat of the moment. You can refer back to that later and say, “You know there are certain words that we really attempt to keep at a very minimum in our home and I know we hear them a lot in our society. But it’s important that we figure out a different way to express that.”
What might you say when you feel that way that would be more respectful to the person that you’re saying it to? Because it’s important that you respect yourself enough to let the words that come out of your mouth be important. And it’s important that you respect the person who’s hearing them. So that word escaped and you hear it. And you know the world goes on. But what other way might you express yourself so that somebody could know this is challenging for me?” Because ultimately as they move into the adult world they’re going need to know when that isn’t going to work. And they’re going to need to have something else to rely on to say this is that big for me.
Video #4: I Want An Apology
Transcript: When teens have done something like swear at you, there’s been a big fight and you feel like the whole world has crumbled around you. It could be the next day, but it could really be minutes later, they come into the room and say, “Could you drop me off at so and so’s?” And you’re like, “If you think I’m doing anything nice for you for the rest your life you’ve got another thing coming!”
We want we want to solve this. We want to make it better. The problem is that we’re taking it much more seriously than they are in that moment. It’s hard to remember being back to a teen, but those teen years are really very much in the moment. That’s why you know they will drop all of their assignments and go off and play basketball. Teens forgot that’s still going to be there when they get back. They live in the moment. They thrive in the moment. So when the moment’s over for them, it’s over.
When you hold on to it, they don’t get it. How many of you parents have teens have tried to get your teenager to realize that you’re still frustrated by something. They look at you like what is wrong with you? That happened like what 10 minutes ago. Like get over it. This happens even in their relationships with each other. They can bounce back rather quickly because they have to. The drama is so big all the time that they can’t keep going from one drama holding on to it too long because there’s going to be another one right behind it.
So when they do things, instead up wanting some sort of deep remorse from them about how could you do this to me . . . what we’re going to recognize is when they come back in and they are calm, what they’re saying is, “This relationship was never really broken in the first place. I just had my moment.”
However it is a teaching opportunity to say, “It sounds like you’re ready to be respectful now because you want me to take you someplace or because you’re ready. So let’s just rehearse how that could go differently the next time. Remember just a few minutes back, or remember yesterday before we ended our day and it didn’t go so well. Let’s try how would that sound differently.
Your teen may say, “I don’t need to do that.” You say, “You don’t need to do it but I do I need to hear how it could be different for us. That would be helpful for me. Would you be willing to try that again and we’ll see how we can get through this differently.” When you do that, the apology comes more naturally. If there’s a little bit of humor in that all the better. Take it lightly and say, “I want to make sure you let me know how we’re going to get through this together when the next upset happens.”