Stop the Potty Talk - 6 Ways to Deal with Inappropriate Preschool Language

11 April 2018

Stop Potty Talk - 6 Ways to Deal Preschoolers Inappropriate Language

I’m pretty sure that every preschool teacher and caregiver has had to deal with potty talk and other kinds of inappropriate language. The way you handle offensive language can either encourage or discourage this kind of speech. But before I discuss some easy ways to handle it, I’d like to share some reasons why this often becomes an issue for preschoolers.

“Potty talk” is most common between the ages of 3 and 4 years old. This is the kind talk that involves the bodily functions of bowel movements and urination. Potty talk only happens after your child is successfully potty-trained. Before accomplishing this, bathroom issues are not a laughing matter. It’s only when they are confident of their own toileting skills that young children can joke about it. And that’s why we find 3-year-olds and older engaged in this type of talk. Two-year-olds are too close to the training period to find much humor in it. And by the age of 5, most children have moved on to other forms of humor as potty talk is too “babyish” for them.  

The main reason for potty talk and inappropriate words is very often to get adult’s attention. If your child gets a big reaction out of you when certain words are used, it reinforces using these words. Here are 6 suggestions for how to handle your preschooler’s potty talk as well as swear words:

  1. Keep a poker face. You can’t control your little one’s blurting out, “Poopy head!” to his brother, but you can control your own reaction. Remember, the ability to make adults laugh, angry, or upset is enormously powerful when you’re small. Diffuse that power with your calm, poker face. If you keep things matter-of-fact-- don’t laugh, show embarrassment, or start to get angry-- potty talk will lose its appeal to a child. You can simply say, “We don’t use that word.” Then, when your child does or says something positive, be sure to praise that behavior. Use your reactions and attention to reinforce your child's good behavior.
  2. Find substitute words. Is your preschooler just trying on a new word on for size or sing-songing it under his breath for the thrill? You can probably persuade him to substitute another exciting new word like “shazzam” or “mumbo-jumbo” instead. Swap a similar-sounding funny word for the inappropriate one-- say snoopy nose for poopy nose, for example. You can even make up a rhyming word game using similar-sounding funny words like “snoopy loopy, snoopy whoopy ... ” Or, if the problem is that your little one’s short on acceptable words to express their anger or frustration, it may help to encourage your preschooler to say out loud, “I’m mad,” or “I’m frustrated.” Check out my blog, Your Preschooler’s Social-Emotional Development - Part 1 - Four Basics for more ideas to help your little one express all their growing emotions.
  3. Set clear limits. If your little one has discovered a serious profanity or two, it’s time to set some guidelines. Remember your poker face and to do this calmly, without getting agitated or mad. Otherwise, you are reminding your preschooler of the power she has to make you react and pay attention to her quickly. If it’s a made up word like “potty face,” calmly tell your child that that’s no such word and you don’t understand what she’s saying. On the other hand, when your preschooler uses an actual adult-variety profanity, there’s no need to explain what they mean or why they’re unacceptable. This kind of adult reasoning doesn’t translate into how your preschooler thinks. Saying, “We don’t allow that kind of language” is also too vague for your little one. Just make it clear, in a matter-of-fact and disinterested voice which words are off limits. For example, “We don’t use that word in our home or around anyone.” This helps your child understand that this language is not acceptable around you or around anyone else. Be specific, calm, and firm. My blog, Preschoolers Think Differently - 4 Unique Ways Very Young Children See the World has more helpful information to understand and work with preschoolers’ developing brains and thoughts.
  4. Teach respect. If your little one starts calling other children potty-type names, it’s time to teach some basics of respect. To do this, ask your preschooler how he would feel if someone called him a “potty head,” for example. It’s important to explain that these words hurt people’s feelings and it doesn’t matter if other kids are using the same language. Remember, your preschooler is still developing and learning empathy, so they won’t always remember to think of others. But it still important for your little one to know that his actions have an effect on others.
  5. Walk the Talk. Be a good example and strive to express yourself in non-offensive ways for your child. If your preschooler hears you use profanity in your daily conversations or when you’re upset, it will be a lot harder to convince her not to talk that way herself. If your preschooler mimics something you said, you need to admit that you shouldn’t have said it either. Then promise yourself not to use it again. For more helpful ways to engage your child’s early listening skills, read on in my blog, Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development - Part 2 - Listening.
  6. Know when it’s time for discipline. If the above suggestions don’t seem to be working with your your little one, then it’s time for a disciplinary plan. And when you impose any kind of discipline with a preschooler, it’s important to stay calm, respond swiftly and be consistent. Because preschoolers are “in the moment” it’s very important not to put this off until later. Later, they will be in another moment and the discipline won’t make sense when separated from the act. Discipline won’t be effective if you wait until you get home.  Remember, preschool time-outs should be short and can be taken anywhere. So be flexible and look for a quiet spot-- the back seat of the car, a corner at the market, a bedroom at Grandma’s. Then, if time-outs don’t do the trick, you may need to up the ante with more something meaningful, like revoking privileges. Here again, do so as consistently and unemotionally as you can.  For example, “If you use that word again, I will cancel your playdate with your friend, Diego.” Consequences for offensive language absolutely can be made clear, even to preschoolers! 

If you are facing this challenge, let us know how these suggestions were helpful in dealing with your child's “colorful” language. You can share your feedback right here.