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Humour: A valuable laugh skill

Robert Chubb

 Abstract: Humour is described as a skill that children can learn in order to help them function more effectively in their lives. As a self-management skill, humour reduces anxiety, body tension, and aggression. It buffers stress, nurtures self-esteem, enhances perspective, and helps manage personal crises. As a social skill, humour contributes to positive one-to-one and group experiences. Given the evidence of the positive functions of humour in children’s lives and given our intuitive sense that humour is essential in our personal lives, it is incumbent upon professionals to intentionally incorporate humour in therapeutic relationships with children and youth. Child and youth care workers are encouraged to lighten up and get serious about humour.

What is a frivolous subject like humour doing in a professional journal like this? After all, we are professionals. Our work is important and has serious implications for children and families. Let’s get serious!

In our personal relationships, the positive power of humour is intuitive. We use it often, we use it naturally, and we take it for granted. Humour serves us well in this capacity.

As professionals, however, we cannot take our interactions for granted. We must be cognizant and intentional in our relationships with children. Our helping relationships call for purposeful interactions toward desired outcomes. Humour seems to defy these criteria. How does a topic as casual and commonplace as humour warrant legitimate professional consideration?

Fortunately, being a serious professional does not mean being a solemn professional. The following close examination of the functions of humour and laughter in children’s lives reveals its many advantages. Humour is legitimized. These benefits provide a basis for, and strongly suggest that we promote the development of, children’s use of humour during our therapeutic interactions with them. While the rationale for incorporating humour in our work and play with children is provided, the method is not. You are a child and youth care worker. You already have a sense of humour. Use the farce. Creatively reinforce children’s appropriate humour and model alternatives.

Mark Twain cautioned against analyzing humour. He likened the exercise to that of dissecting a frog. He said, “You leam a lot about it, but you end up with a dead frog” In the interest of geleotology, “the science of laughter,” and the child and youth care profession, let’s hop to it.

A sense of humour is a positive and dynamic life skill that helps children at risk function more effectively in their daily lives. As an emotional self-management skill, humour helps children defend against their own negative emotional impulses by reducing anxiety, body tension, and aggression. Humour maintains emotional equilibrium by buffering stress, nurturing self-esteem, enhancing perspectives and managing personal crises. As a social skill, humour facilitates children’s one-to-one relationships by demonstrating friendliness and empathy. Children’s group experiences are enhanced through cohesion and acceptance.

Humour as behavioural self-management

Reduces emotional anxiety
Humour’s ability to alleviate emotional anxiety provides children with an emergency defence against negative impulses. Children who effectively use humour and laughter to lower their anxiety level can give themselves time to establish inner control and inhibit behavioural outbursts. This strategy can effectively interrupt self-defeating impulsive behaviours and associated tantrums. The children we work with often worry about their own emotional physical safety. Anxiety relating to self and unknown environments is effectively reduced by laughter (Coser, 1959). We know all too well that children in our care must cope with unpredictable changes in their living environments. Robinson (1977) states, “Anxiety is one of the most common sources of discomfort that prompts the use of humour” (p. 116). Apparently humour’s success in alleviating anxiety is naturally reinforcing, hence its frequent use.

Reduces body tension
Laughter can help the child’s body relax. During hearty laughter, the release of endorphins from the brain into the body has an anaesthetic-like effect that relaxes the muscles (Cousins, 1979). Described by Cousins as “internal jogging,” laughter’s arousal of the musculo-skeletal system not only relaxes the body, but it is followed by a state of relaxation in which muscle tension falls below the norm. The advantage of this self-induced relaxing experience to emotionally charged children is evident. Based on his research, William Fry Jr. (cited in Robinson, 1977, p. 166) stated, “This diminished muscle tone reduces the ability of the body to act aggressively.”

Reduces aggression
Humour and laughter interrupt hostile emotions and aggressive behaviours. As Cornett (1986) writes, “You cannot be laughing and angry at the same time” (p. 15). Laughter creates opportunity to mobilize other positive emotions (Cousins, 1979). The use of humour to transform aggressive emotions into positive ones can be learned by children as young as nine years of age (Cornett, 1986). Cornett contends that humour dissolves resistance and facilitates the therapeutic process. Aggressive behaviours are subsequently disrupted. The child care worker who cajoles the resistant child and gains co-operation is being therapeutic. Tension that might otherwise be acted out by hitting, punching or kicking is released (Cornett, 1986). Kaplan and Boyd observed that even hostile humour “inhibited deviant behaviour” (cited in Robinson, 1977, p. 116). Lorenz’s metaphor is vivid: “laughing men (or women) hardly ever shoot” (cited in Robinson, 1977, p. 116).

Humour to maintain emotional equilibrium

Buffers daily stressors
Humour is a mature coping device that helps emotionally fragile children maintain emotional equilibrium and effectively buffer daily stressors. In the shifting and threatening milieu, it can reassure and release tension (Coser, 1959). A “good sense of humour” is often associated with maturity (Masten, 1986), and authorities agree that it is a healthy mechanism for dealing with life’s difficulties (Fry, 1984).

Nurtures self-esteem
Self-esteem and identity are nurtured through humour. Cultivating an appreciation of humour is an integral aspect of personality development (Jalongo, 1985). The pattern of humour development parallels the child’s intellectual and emotional development (Cornett, 1986). Additionally, Fry (1984) concluded that humour furthers the child’s sense of identity and self- understanding. This is central to our work with children. Studies by Cornett (1986) concur that young children who have low self-esteem can begin to view themselves more positively when they can bring pleasure to others through laughter. Studies of high school students also indicate many positive correlations between humour and positive self-concept (Fabrizi and Pollio, 1987). Freud referred to the liberating effects of humour as “building ego strength” (cited in Haig, 1986, p. 548).

Enhances perspectives
Humour involves a forward shift in perspective that, according to Piaget (cited in Ziv, 1984, p. 83), is “a reaction to mastery of a challenge that was formerly not understood” Research has subsequently revealed that laughter stimulates the left and right sides of the brain, resulting in simultaneous processing of abstract and logical aspects of thought, thus having therapeutic value (Robinson, 1977). Studies indicate humour is highly related to insight (Jalongo, 1985). ]oel Goodman observes that this insight includes “the element of surprise.” This sudden discovery of “ah-ha learning” involving a pleasant emotional shift and accompanying laughter (ha-ha) is aptly referred to by Goodman as “the ha-ha, ah-ha connection” (Crabbs, Crabbs, and Goodman, 1986, p. 106).

Manages life crises
Humour helps children appropriately reduce the impact of crises. By lightening the heaviness related to tragedy and death, overpowering emotions are neutralized (Robinson, 1977). Perhaps these negative emotions are not eliminated as Robinson states, but their impact may be reduced by the retention of hope that humour provides. In crises, “humour retains hope” (Robinson). Robinson states that anger and anxiety often lead to denial of reality. Conversely Freud states that humour does not “overstep the bounds of mental health” (cited in Robinson, p. 116). Both perspectives support the use of humour as a healthy response during crisis. Child care workers can promote humour as a personal coping strategy. Humour is a personal management skill that children at risk can learn to help them regulate their emotions during life crisis.

Humour as a social skill in one-to-one relationship

Demonstrates friendliness
The function of humour as a social skill that helps children manage interactions with others is evident. Humour, by demonstrating friendliness, helps children initiate relationships. Victor Borge says, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people” (cited in Crabbs, Crabbs, and Goodman, 1986, p. 107). Ziv (1984) maintains that humour is a key for opening up interpersonal relationships, and Stephenson relates that humour “serves to indicate safety and friendship” (cited in Lindzey and Aronson, 1969, p. 811).

Demonstrates empathy
Children with the ability to be humourous can nurture their relationships by displaying empathy, that is, sharing humour with others demonstrates caring (Morreall, 1983). Children who can be empathic with peers have a greater capacity for developing and maintaining relationships, however, child and youth care workers will recognize the difficulties some children have in developing this capacity. Cornett (1986) indicates that children become capable of empathy at around 9-10 years of age. At around this age, according to Cornett, children are usually able to shift toward the sympathetic use of humour that considers a joke as funny only when it is not harmful to others. Effective humour allows the person to laugh with others, as opposed to laughing at others (Crabbs, Crabbs, and Goodman, 1986). It shows acceptance and a desire to please others (Morreall, 1983).

Humour as a social skill in group contexts

Creates cohesion
Humour skills create the opportunity for children to experience closeness in a group. Humour is contagious in nature (Morreall, 1983); in spreading from person to person, it fosters group cohesion (Jalongo, 1985). The result is an experience of social communion and community (McGhee and Goldstein, 1983). Humour helps children get along. As child and youth care workers, we can help create positive group experiences for children who do not relate well. Children who learn these skills can create a positive group experience for themselves over and over again.

Gains acceptance
When children use humour they can improve their chances of being socially accepted. Humour helps them gain friends and promotes group membership (Morreall, 1983). It wins social approval, and enhances belonging (Robinson, 1977). Laughter and humour are so widespread in human societies that individuals who abstain from them may be judged abnormal (Lindzey and Aronson, 1969). Children who lack humour are seen by peers as withdrawn, quiet, shy, unhappy, or isolated (Masten, 1986). Humour has been used to integrate social isolates (Morreall, 1983). Children with behavioural disorders are especially vulnerable to exclusion because they often have difficulty understanding group humour (Cornett, 1986).


Clearly, humour provides children at risk the opportunity to better manage themselves and their relationships. The benefits are multi-dimensional and cumulative. Ziv (1984) reveals the positive power of humour in this statement: “Thus humour can help a child climb the ladder of social hierarchy . . . to be accepted, to win affection, and to gain status” (p. 30).

Children and youth care workers who currently use humour in relationships with children can feel assured they are professionals imparting a valuable laugh skill. Intuitive applications of humour can now be understood, valued, and utilized at a conscious level of understanding. Counsellors who have practiced mirth control because of personal or professional concerns may give themselves permission to lighten up and get serious about humour. Add it to your repertoire of skills. It is a legitimate therapeutic tool-of-the-trade that can help enlighten our children and counterbalance weighty interventions. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, you tend to perceive every challenge as a nail to be hit. Sometimes you need a monkey wrench. So go ahead, give the lift of laughter!


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Coser, R.L. (1959). Some social functions of laughter. Thorofare, NJ: Chas. B. Slack.

Cousins, N. (1979). Anatomy of an illness. New York: W.W. Norton.

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Morreall, J. (1983). Taking laughter seriously. Albany, NY: Springer Verlag.

Robinson, V.M. (1977). Humour and the health professionals. Thorofare, NJ: Chas. B. Slack.

Ziv, A. (1984). Personality and sense of humour. New York: Springer.


This feature: Chubb, R. (1995). Humour: A valuable laugh skill. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 10, 3. pp. 61-66.