How to Use Humor to Connect With a Distressed Child

Child acting out of control

It happens from time to time. Out comes a zinger like: “I hate you, mom” Or: “I am never going to school again.” Or, worse in some ways, they retreat to their room or a closet and refuse to come out for hours.

When our children say or do these kinds of things, their emotions are overwhelming their capacity for rational thought. In the language of brain development, they are still learning how to integrate the lower part of their brain, the part that registers raw emotions like fear or excitement, with the upper part of their brain, the part that can can step back from the excitement of the moment, think things through, and make rational decisions,

The process of emotional maturation takes a long time, and there are no shortcuts. We can support our kids, but we can’t do the hard work for them. Kids need these cycles of disappointment and recovery in order to learn how to integrate their brains.

Humor helps children rediscover their equilibrium

The temper tantrums, refusals to cooperate, meltdowns, retreats from challenges—these are all learning opportunities, and the best thing we can do as parents is to put some wind at their back by helping them recover from emotional wounds and supporting them in their quest to solve problems and rediscover their confidence.

Humor is a powerful and often-overlooked way to help distressed children rediscover their equilibrium. When our children feel rejected, frustrated, fearful, or humiliated, we can jump in with some light fun to distract them from the lousy feelings they’re experiencing and help them get some valuable perspective on their situation.

Confuse your daughter with a cup…

The play therapist Larry Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, has all sorts of great ideas about how to use humor to melt away tension. For example, if your child calls you a stupid idiot, oblige her. Act so stupid that you cannot tell her from the couch, and try to take a nap on her. Or confuse her with a cup and try to take a drink of water from her. Or mistake her for a pile of dirty clothes and carry her toward the clothes washer. You’re likely to get a lot of laughter and a major release of tension.

Or consider a child who is having trouble learning to deal with losing. Self-deprecating humor offers a lifeline. For example, you could challenge your child to some 1:1 soccer and play at an utterly incompetent level, letting the child win all the time. You could alternately brag about how great you are and wail in despair as you fail over and over. “How could this happen to the world’s greatest?!” you might wail in lament.

Humor lets your child “play around” with their emotions

Once you get your child laughing with your antics, you could up your game a little. Then you’d have two games going on: the game you’re playing, and the confidence game. You could act super ridiculous as a sore loser, and then try a little harder and score a goal yourself, if you can. Then, you could flip back to super incompetent. These antics would give your child a chance to “play around” with his emotions and build resilience in a carefree environment.

You could give them over-the-top compliments on their brilliance when they beat you. “You must be the world’s greatest five year old soccer player—has the world ever seen anything like it?! I don’t think so!” This would give them the chance to feel powerful and successful, and to giggle away their feelings of inadequacy.

Humor isn’t right for every situation, of course, and you have to be careful that your child does not interpret your silliness as coming at their expense. But more often than not, when we play with our children, we’re inviting them into a productive learning zone. We’re teaching them that laughter and foolishness are great ways to melt away disappointment, frustration, and anger.

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How to Use Humor to Connect With a Distressed Child