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Life Ready Kids – Know When NOT to Laugh

Image from wikiHow
Image from wikiHow

Have you ever laughed at the wrong time?  I remember sitting in church as a little guy doing my best to keep from laughing out loud before “LOL” was even invented.  There are always funny things that are said in church that adults seem to miss, but all the kids get it instantly.  I would get myself calmed down and things would be fine, until I caught the eye of my older brother, and then I’d start the horrible process all over again of trying to laugh without getting taken out of church by my parents.

It would seem like laughing at the right time would be some sort of automatic for us and not need to be taught.  Things are either funny and make us laugh, or not funny and don’t.  Yet, as I’ve been with my girls and watched other kids, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing when to laugh isn’t totally natural.

I remember sitting in a theater watching a PG-13 movie that had some dramatic action and violence.  It wasn’t a kid’s movie and I was really bothered to see some really young kids in the theater as the movie started.  I forgot about the kids until there was this scene in which a goblin lost its head.  The crowd all gasped at the same time, however one of the kids began to laugh uncontrollably.  I was stunned that a kid would laugh at something so horrendous.  My assumption was that the kid was so desensitized by violence that he thought it was funny.  I now know that his laughter wasn’t the “Ha, ha, that’s funny” laugh; it was “I’m terrified and don’t know what to do” nervous laughter.

Nervous laughter has its source in anxiety, discomfort, embarrassment, or loss of control (Learn More).  A classic example of nervous laughter is what happens when a very shy and self-conscious person becomes the center of attention.  There is disconnect with what we are feeling and the laughter that is coming out of our mouths.  The problem with nervous laughter is that it tends to increase the stress rather than reduce it.

The reason I’m making such a big deal out of identifying nervous laughter is because as parents we can react to the nervous laughter in a way that isn’t helpful to our kids.  We wonder why they think it is funny that their brother just split his head open and start to worry that our kids are sociopaths.  We interpret their laughter as callousness rather than a sign of sensitivity.  Rather than helping our kids process their fear, we end up adding stress to the situation by yelling at them to stop laughing.

I’ll say it another way: “Criticizing kids for laughing when scared only makes them more scared, and scared of you, too.” .

Nervous laughter should be a sign for us as parents that our kids need some help processing their emotions.  The key is to help them feel safe and then approach things by saying something like, “Wow, what just happened was scary to me, I noticed that you were laughing, but it seemed like you were scared by what happened, too; and instead of tears, it came out in giggles, were you surprised by that?”

One of the hardest things for us as parents is to react to what is going on in our kids hearts and minds rather than jumping to conclusions based on their behavior.  We need to be helpful in both areas.

Now that we have a small grip on nervous laughter, I want to share a crazy theory that I have about how our nervous laughter impacts our kids.  Have you ever wondered why kids will repeat certain horrible phrases, swear, or even become focused on talking about poop or body parts?  I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, but I think part of it is reinforced by our nervous laughter as parents.  We aren’t sure how to react when our cute little kid says something inappropriate.   We may not be aware of how we show our emotion, but there are times that we show it with nervous laughter.  We may be appalled or concerned on the inside, but our first reaction is a little, awkward laugh.  Kids like to make adults laugh and so they repeat the phrase, or key words from the phrase, to see if they can figure out how to make the adult laugh again.  If they hit on the word again, there is a chance they’ll get another nervous laugh and discover how to be funny.

As a parent, we are reactive and things happen that we just can’t prepare for, and we react quickly when we are stressed.  We can be aware, but I’m not sure we can stop our nervous laughter.  However, we can take the time to explain to kids why we laughed when they said something, and that while you laughed, the reason you laughed wasn’t because it was funny.

These are hard conversations, but also are the types of conversations that you will look back on knowing that both you and your kid are better off for it.

I’d love to hear your feedback by commenting below.  Do you remember ever being a nervous laugher?  How have you helped your kids when they laugh at the wrong times?