The Nuance of Swearing


Swearing: whether it is an under-the-breath utterance or a bold and clear f-bomb, swearing has an interesting place in the life of an adolescent. Swearing is another one of those behaviors that is often seen as okay for adults, but not for kids, and teens in particular are caught in between. The nuance around “appropriate” language can leave some parents frustrated and kids confused. The research around swearing provides some truly eye-opening perspectives and can help you guide your teenager.

Pain Tolerance and Stress Relief:

Research has shown that swearing may be associated with increased pain tolerance and stress relief. When individuals experience intense emotions such as frustration, anger, or stress, using strong language may serve as a way to vent and release pent-up feelings. Even though the federal data shows that suicide rates for teens dropped in 2022, teens continue to experience tremendous stress. Additionally, studies have explored the physiological responses to swearing in the context of stress and heightened pain thresholds. Researchers have observed changes in heart rate and cortisol levels, indicating a potential beneficial connection between swearing and the body’s stress response.

Cognitive Processing:

Swearing has also been linked to cognitive processing, particularly in situations where individuals are faced with stressors or challenges. Some studies suggest that swearing may influence cognitive functions and help individuals manage the cognitive load associated with stressful tasks. A 2015 study also debunked the myth that people who use swear words have lower intelligence and a less robust vocabulary. That colorful language your teen is using may actually be indicative of creativity and innovation.

Social Bonding and Support:

Swearing within a social context can contribute to a sense of camaraderie and social bonding. This may be why teens swear during sports and multiplayer video games.  Sharing explicit language with others, especially in stressful situations, may create a sense of solidarity and mutual understanding. Additionally, teens may also view swearing as a form of authentic expression and may use profanity to convey intensity, emotion, or emphasis. This perspective contrasts with older generations, where explicit language may be perceived as impolite or offensive.

Context matters 

Swearing in a private and controlled setting may have different implications than using explicit language in a public or professional environment.  In some contexts, explicit language may be more socially acceptable, while in others, it may be perceived as inappropriate or offensive. We need to talk with our teens about the potential consequences of using what society considers adult language. Teens who use profanity inappropriately may be perceived as disrespectful or lacking self-control, which could impact their relationships with peers, teachers, and other authority figures. It’s also helpful to call out the difference between swearing about something compared to swearing at someone or calling someone a name. Being open about the differences and teaching your teen, even if you don’t condone swearing, can help them navigate the adolescent world when you are not around. 

Swearing is one of those topics that rather than saying “don’t do it” we can use it to talk about individual and family values. We can both acknowledge what swearing can do for our stress while encouraging our teenagers to have a variety of healthy and effective stress-coping strategies, including mindfulness, deep breathing, physical exercise, and seeking needed support. And, we can use it as a way to help them learn to dance between their individual needs/wants/preferences and the needs/wants/preferences of those around them especially when it comes to generational relationships, professional relationships, conflict, and effective communication. 

It’s crucial to approach the issue of swearing in teens with a balanced perspective. While occasional use may not lead to severe consequences, parents and caregivers should be attentive to patterns of language use and consider having open, non-confrontational discussions about the potential impact of profanity on various aspects of their teen’s life. Encouraging healthy communication skills and providing alternative ways for teens to express themselves can be valuable.


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