Laughter as Medicine

Steve looked deadly serious.  This was understandable because he’d had a rough life. By the time Steve was 16, he had been in foster care for 13 years and had been through more than 15 placements. He had been called a “difficult case” with little chance at a “normal life.”

During our initial office visit, he paid a great deal of attention to the various games and toys I kept in my office. He told me that he never had played with toys when he was a kid. He had always been too busy.  Noticing how much he kept looking at the water pistol I kept on the shelf, I couldn’t help but take the water pistol and shoot a stream of water right at him.

He looked at me in disbelief but was even more shocked when I placed another loaded squirt gun in front of him and said “Defend yourself sir” in my best “Errol Flynn” voice. We spent the next 1/2 hour shooting squirt guns and laughing like six year olds.

Young people are under a great deal of pressure today. Humor and play time during childhood seem to be getting shorter as young people face more pressure to succeed in life. Those who work with young people as volunteers through Compeer or other youth programs and those who work as professional counselors all face the difficult task of building positive healthy relationships with youth. Building these relationships can be stressful. Humor is an essential experience for young people and those who work with them.

Humor is beneficial in several ways:

  • Shared laughter produces a shared understanding. Humor is a form of communication. When a group experiences humor they become more cohesive. The same is true of adults and youth. Humor bridges the generation gap.
  • Humor makes you feel better. Laughing at stressful events relieves tension and anxiety. This makes more energy available for the task at hand.
  • Humor holds attention. There are thousands of products and activities which can distract young people.  One way to hold their attention is to make the work fun and enjoyable.
  • Playing helps learning. We learned some of the basic skills for adulthood by pretending to be cowboys, parents or the president. Young people can learn valuable skills by role playing.

In order to begin using humor with young people, here are some helpful hints to get you started:

  • Laugh with children. Don’t laugh at them. Young people don’t have their personalities fully formed yet.  They are particularly sensitive to being laughed at. Fortunately, young people find many things funny and there are endless opportunities to share a mutual laugh.
  • Laugh at yourself. By not taking yourself so seriously young people will see you as more open and trustworthy and children will often test this with good-natured humor.
  • Get children to laugh at life’s little catastrophes. Children are prone to think that events are the end of the world and need a tool to put them into perspective.
  • And it’s not only children who need laughter in their lives. Adults do too! Even though humor has many benefits, adults can be reluctant to share humor with someone younger. It is as if adults believe that they are supposed to model rational behavior to try and counterbalance the irrational behavior of youth. In truth, adults need humor as much, if not more, than children. Studies have shown that adults who have fun at work are more productive, creative and have less stress. Young people need to see that you can be responsible and productive and still have fun and enjoyment. Not only does that make growing up more appealing, it’s better for the adult also. So take some time out to laugh today!

Published in the Optimist Magazine by Mark Darby.
From the Book “Use It or Lose It: Humor and the Treatment of Mental Illness”