LOL: Why laughter might really be the best medicine for kids

Nothing’s funny about the pandemic. But getting children to find their sense of humor can help them get through it.

Your cat walks over the keyboard during your son’s school Zoom call to the delight of his classmates. Your daughter delivers a perfect impression of your mother-in-law, not realizing she was standing behind her. Cringe-inducing? Sure. Funny? You bet. And experts say that finding humor in situations like these—even super-stressful ones we’ve experienced during the pandemic—is often the best way to handle it.

“Humor often emerges as a response to transitions, pain, and tragedy,” explains Mary Kay Morrison, author of Using Humor to Maximize Living and founder of the Humor Academy at the Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor. This year, when everything from remote schooling to election results to the holiday season is raising household stress levels, finding things to laugh about together can help everyone better manage those stressors, she says.

“It serves as an invaluable coping response to the complex difficulties that kids face,” Morrison says. “Most people rely on their sense of humor to survive childhood challenges and the increased demands placed on them, especially during things like a pandemic.”

Research shows that laughter, like physical exercise, increases adrenaline and oxygen flow, releases feel-good endorphins, and pumps up heart rates. And like a good workout, that burst of energy eventually results in people feeling relaxed and calm.

But it’s more than just a feeling. Other studies show that humor can help us be better problem solvers and decision makers. Brain scans of the cerebral cortex reveal that humor inspires creativity and aids with critical thinking skills. “Humor is an essential element for healthy brain development for both kids and adults,” Morrison says.

And humor can be the defense mechanism our bodies need to become more resilient in the face of adversity. Being able to laugh during life’s challenges—whether it’s spilled milk or another pandemic lockdown—can help us manage our emotional health. Morrison adds that the ability to see the humor in an upsetting situation is an invaluable skill that can decrease depression, loneliness, and anger in children and adults.

Ready to tune up your kids’ funny bone? These tips can help.

Start the laughter early

The giggles that come after a parent plays a game of peek-a-boo or blows raspberries with a baby are helping the child grow and learn. They’re making brain connections that are the building blocks for social skills.

“Bright objects, big smiles, funny noises all tickle our brains,” says humorist, author, and Psychology Today contributor Gina Barreca, adding that as kids get older, parents can help them develop an understanding of more complex forms of funny (silly word play, for example).

“And when a child’s humor moves to simple jokes (‘What do a tree and elephant have in common? They both have trunks!’) it moves into new intellectual territory altogether,” Barreca says. Being able to understand the funny part of that joke actually requires a child to make savvy connections between flora and fauna and understand the word play, she points out. Parents can help kids figure that out as they go.

Teach your kids to be funnier

Not every kid (or parent) is a natural-born comedian. And that’s OK!

Research shows that though our genetic makeup helps determine whether we’re funny (or not), our funny bone might also be related to what we’re exposed to. That means we can get better at it, Morrison says. “Humor is a skill that can be nurtured and developed, and both background and temperament contribute to an individual’s humor style and practice,” she says.

Want to teach a kid humor? Show them funny things. Tell jokes, walk in a silly way, and laugh at yourself. Parents who demonstrate and reinforce the importance of humor are teaching their kids to appreciate it, too. Funny movies, silly videos, and squeaky toys have their place, but to help kids understand the humor you need to participate in the fun.

“You can’t sit a kid down with a screen or a book or a toy and say, ‘Have a good time; this is really funny,’ and then walk away to do something else,” Barreca says. “You have to be there, laughing at the funny parts.”

Help them see the funny in a tough situation

When hard times happen—like being locked inside during a global pandemic—finding a reason to laugh can be tough. But it’s is a useful skill.

“We are faced with change on a daily basis,” Morrison says. “When you can laugh about unexpected challenges or even your own health issues, you know you can face those challenges and even thrive in spite of them.”

When your child is facing a tough issue, have them approach the situation with humor. Morrison suggests encouraging them to “find the funny.” For instance, if they’re frustrated about not seeing a friend, suggest they start a joke-a-thon over video chat. Another idea is to inspire them to imagine “how this could be worse.” Dad got a little creative with the home haircut? Imagine if you’d let your little brother try cutting your hair!

Humor can also be used to diffuse a tough moment. Have a child stressing while studying? Help them make up a joke or funny poem to remember the material.

And you don’t have to wait until the tough times appear. Morrison encourages kids to have a list of happiness strategies written down (sing-a-longs, puns, a favorite joke book) so that they know exactly where to turn to find the funny when they need it.

“Finding time to play is an important component of self-care for both children and adults,” Morrison says.

Keep your screen-time funny to a minimum

Watching TikTok or other social media videos may feel like an easy way to share a funny moment, but it isn’t the best way, Barreca says. Laughing at too many silly videos, she says, teaches kids that humor needs to be done for an audience and should be repeated until you get it right.

“Doing a second-take is not how humor works in life,” she says, suggesting that families do something silly together instead of just watching videos. “Help make them creators and participants in humor, not merely consumers of it.”

Morrison suggests adding swings, hula hoops, pogo sticks, scooters, and other fun activities to your family’s play arsenal. It’s apparently true that laughter is contagious—it’s your brain cells recognizing someone else having fun and realizing that you can, too. So seeing Mom on a pogo stick or Dad attempt a hula hoop record could start a chain reaction that gets everyone laughing.

Show them where the boundaries are

The line between a tasteless wisecrack and a funny quip can be hard to see when you’re little.

Kids don’t instinctively understand sarcasm, satire, parody, or mockery, notes Barreca. “These concepts all depend on seeing the world from two angles simultaneously, meaning that it’s hard to learn to hear the humor in these remarks and even harder to learn how to invent such remarks and use them appropriately,” she says.

That’s where you come in.

“For kids, adults provide the laugh tracks,” Barreca says. “That’s how kids learn where the lines are—the hilarious lines, and the ones that cross a boundary—by listening to where the adults they love laugh.”

If kids cross a line when trying out a joke, gently remind them that a joke isn’t funny if it bullies or causes someone pain.

“When the impact of humor is hurtful, the humor is inappropriate, even if the intent was not to be harmful,” Morrison says. Kids, she says, need to be taught that how the impacted person feels is more important than whether the child intended to cause pain.

With a parent’s gentle help, children can learn to tell the difference between harmful humor and truly funny stuff. And that’s important right now, both for the child as well as the folks she’s trying to make laugh.

“A shared sense of humor—the kind that bonds a family and community—is not only appropriate during tough times,” Barreca says. “It’s essential.”

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