If there is a toddler in your life you can count on a few things–love for princesses and superheroes, new-found independence, sticky fingers and some amazing conversation.
Children at this age do say the most amazing things.
Between the ages of 3 and 6, many children are discovering the world for the first time outside of a parent’s care through daycare or preschool or by participating in organized group activities. Toddlers aren’t just picking up a lot of germs, they are picking up A LOT of information.
Information they are not quite ready to fully comprehend and process. This is also the time children might start to potty talk or use inappropriate language.
For the most part, their vocabulary, statements and out loud observations are super sweet, innocent, often times surprising–in a good way, and may be aligning with their budding personality. And, let’s be honest, some of their communication is downright funny and worthy of a baby book entry or social media post.
But when the conversation and words turn to potty words, curse words or offensive language that holds the potential to alienate, offend or harm someone, that’s when parents need to intervene. But before we jump into to “how” to address it, it’s best to understand “why” potty talk is actually happening.
Potty talk is normal (whew!)
It’s important for parents, caregivers and educators to understand–and remember that potty talk isn’t a girl or boy thing. It is a normal thing. It’s also a very common behavior for children at this age and stage. It if does happen, parents should not feel guilty. Potty talk says nothing about how you parent. It’s normal and is usually a phase you can work through together moving past it and on to the next big adventure that is childhood.
It is good for parents to think early on about addressing potty talk as a teaching opportunity not something to dread or feel guilt about. When words are used inappropriately, used out of context, or said and actually do offend or harm, it is the perfect chance to teach your child empathy, kindness and awareness of others.
You can do this by asking simple questions, like “how do you think your words made your friend feel?” By asking this, not shaming the behavior or the child, you are helping them understand that words matter and words hurt, you are teaching the fundamentals of empathy and kindness.
Big developmental change
The best way to make sense of potty talk and to correct it is to understand what the brain is doing developmentally. It is also helpful to take into account what little brains are being exposed to and how their personal life is changing. Any one, or a combination of the factors below, can create the “perfect storm” for a toddler to develop and practice potty talk.
Impulsivity. Children ages 3 to 6 are developing at a fast rate and they simply lack the maturity and capacity to control themselves. Impulsivity is at an all-time high at this age. The brain has not developed factors for higher thinking. This does not happen until much later through the teen years. Toddlers deserve to develop at their normal rate. It is helpful not to place expectations too high. They truly don’t know any better and don’t know what they are doing or saying is wrong or bad.
Toddlers have a robust social life. Children at this age are socializing more. Maybe more than they ever have in their development. Toddlers attend daycare or pre-K, parent’s day out programs, or participate in organized clubs, group activities and playdates. As their exposure to more social situations increases the exposure to different words and expressions also increases.
Attention-seeking. At this age, kids are very egocentric. They think the world revolves around them. Children are now old enough to know their actions and know their words hold power–like those superheroes mentioned earlier. For a child this age, any reaction is a positive reaction. It’s what they seek. When a child can draw attention to themselves, they feel powerful and feel in control.
Toddlers demonstrate modeled behavior. They might not know what they are saying or what the meaning of a word or phrase is. They oftentimes repeat what they have heard. This is called “modeled behavior” and they are mimicking things or role playing. Peer pressure to fit in could also be a factor.
Learning how to express emotion. We all know someone with a fully developed brain who has a hard time expressing their emotions. Now put yourself in kid’s shoes. Toddlers are rookies. All emotions are new to them. And, they are trying to navigate emotions with a very limited vocabulary in their arsenal.
Potty talk triggers
Chances are, it’s not one single thing that triggers potty talk. When you think about what toddlers are exposed to on a daily basis, the variables are many. Any combination of these may contribute to potty talk or dirty words.
Who and where they might hear questionable language:
Potty words are not a generational thing. Parents from all generations have had to tackle it. However, toddlers today simply have more access to technology and different avenues of exposure.
TV, tech and social media are everywhere. Even if you are a hawk or have parental controls in place, things can slip through. Kids can hear it, pick it up and could say it. YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, even your child simply playing on your phone and hitting the wrong video on your Facebook feed, can open the door and the ears to new words and phrases.
The power of peers. Friends and siblings, especially older ones, are powerful peers serving as a major source of fodder. A toddler’s counterpart does not know really what they are saying either. But the toddler doesn’t know that and are off and running–or, talking.
Parents, teachers and coaches. You may have cringed when you read that. Remember, early on we said to not feel guilty. But yes, adults are also a sound source. It’s best to pay attention to your audience.
Tips for addressing potty talk
Words matter and all words have meaning. Their impact is real and can be deep. Think about this twist on the old saying:
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words WILL break my heart.”
Before any hearts get broken, take these ideas and tips into account and help your little communicator communicate in a compassionate and empathetic way.
Ignore the behavior. Depending on the child’s age, it might just pass. If it doesn’t, try these ideas.
Don’t overreact. This is prime bait for that attention-seeking little cutie.
Address it immediately so it is fresh in the child’s mind. But remain calm when you do it.
Don’t assume. A child might not even know they just said something inappropriate.
Don’t laugh. We know little kids saying dirty words might be shocking, startling and funny, but if the words are harmful to someone else, it is anything but funny.
Don’t reinforce the behavior. This can be confusing to the child.
Don’t shame the child. Don’t say things like, “you’re bad.” The child could retreat and push their own feelings back and feel bad about themselves. It could curb their interest and openness about communicating overall. It could also trip up their developmental progress (such as potty training) if they feel guilty or feel they are in trouble.
Take it to the bathroom. Be in the moment. Take the child to the bathroom and remind them that potty words stay by the potty and in the bathroom. This simple teaching takes the zest out of the potty talk. Try it, some children might lose interest altogether in the potty talk.
Create and find new and “clean” words together. Let the child take the lead. When they help create an alternative word or phrase for dirty words, the whole family can put it into play and then everyone is keeping it clean.
Be prepared for the call or notification. If and when you get a call from a teacher or other parent, it’s best to defer to the rules of the classroom, or the house rules. Listen. Don’t react, but act, and start talking to help the child better understand.
Ask for clarification. Try to help kids navigate and figure out what they said and why they said it or what they thought that word means. If you asked “where did you hear it from” be prepared for the answer. It could sting a tad.
Follow up, and ask “what does that word make you feel?” Or, “what do you think that word made your friend feel?”
Consider defining the word, if age appropriate. Then, in a gentle, non-shaming way, help them understand that the term is cruel, inappropriate, offensive or hurtful.
Role play. Think about having your child be on the receiving end and help them understand what it might feel like to be called a name or have something said to them that is hurtful. They will get it because children are feelers.
Redirect. If the behavior or words are repeated. Redirect the child to a different activity or choose a “clean” word. Let the child help you determine or create that word.
Talk with older siblings. Littler brothers and sisters adore their older siblings. It is important to let them know that. Be proud of that but remind them to take ownership and accountability for the examples they set for their younger, more impressionable audience.
Little things to make big difference
The key is having children learn and understand that specific language is inappropriate. While not a punishment, these activities can help the child understand their choice of words is important.
Assign them a household chore if they use the language. Perhaps helping you clean the bathroom. Afterall, it is home to potty talk.
If older kids receive an allowance, consider reducing it or taking it away if the talk continues.
Let the child know that if they do or say something cruel to someone, they have to do three nice things in return to make up for it.
Have the child write the person they offended a note of apology. If the child is not reading and writing yet, have them do a drawing. Be sure to give the receiving parents a heads up so they understand the situation and can address on their end.
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Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, University of Kansas School of Medicine