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100 MAY 2007
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A time to laugh, a time to think, a time to act

John Digney

I was standing in the hallway the other day talking with a staff member. She was telling me something funny that had happened to one of our colleagues. He had been hill-walking with some of the kids from the centre and ... Well, it doesn’t really matter what happened. What’s important is that just as we were both laughing out loud, one of the kids walked in. She looked at us. We looked back. And she wasn’t happy. For some reason it dawned on me that she probably thought we were laughing at her, or that we were laughing together about her.

That happens sometimes: young people who are used to being treated as objects assume the worst. Laughter in working with young people, as with most aspects of humour, can be very useful and therapeutic. However, if not managed correctly, it can undermine and seriously damage relationships.

Laughter is often described as the “best medicine”, a way to ”achieve health, happiness and peace of mind” (Peter and Dana, 1982). However, this is not of much solace when you find yourself in a hallway, looking at a vulnerable young person, who is hurt and believes you are laughing at her. What to do? Well what indeed.

This scenario is all too familiar to us as Child and Youth Care workers, having to be aware of what is going on around us at all times, having to make meaning of every situation and having to be alert to the meanings that are being made by the kids for whom we care. As stated by Garfat (1998), “We must be concerned with what is psychologically real in our work with youth and their families. Even though it may appear that some things do not exist in the world independent of an individual’s construction of them, they must be an area of concern for us” He goes on to state, “... for any intervention must be constructed of the interaction between the two realities of the client and of the worker”.

Just because a conversation or laugh between two people is totally unrelated to a third person in their company, does not mean that the third person might not believe they are being spoken about or laughed at. Bad enough to have someone talking about you, but to be laughing at you!

Humour is indeed a funny thing, it does have the ability to heal the hurt, but it can also cause hurt, it can “break down barriers or build them up, separate people or bond them, cut off communication or enhance it” (Klein, 1998). Humour can be used to connect, communicate, cajole, show caring, conceal and cope (Digney, 2005), but it has its hazards, not least of which is misinterpretation. Klein (1998) tells the story of a person involved in a serious car wreck. After the crisis had passed she read her medical report, written by the emergency room doctor, it stated, “patient not in acute pain – laughing and joking with doctors”. The doctor has decided that the laughing meant that the patient was not in pain when in fact the opposite was true, as the patient states, “one of the ways I coped was to do the kind of joking that you don’t have to think about too much.”

Well back to my story. This young person now standing before us had a history very similar to many of the kids we work with. She had been raised by her grandmother, having been abandoned by her mother (father was not known). She had been teased and bullied in school and when she got big enough, she began to fight back. Of course this did not make her feel any better, but she needed to do something to stop the hurt, the hurt of feeling abandoned, the hurt of years of teasing and having fun poked at her.

We knew her history and knew that she was finding things difficult at the moment, and here we were in effect laughing at her (her perception). What to do? Thankfully my colleague and I were able to realize the thought processes that were occurring before us and we were able to make the connection between our laughing and the look of utter devastation on the young person's face. Before a major situation occurred and before relationships were damaged, the staff member was quick enough to invite the young person into the joke. She beckoned with her hand and as she did she said, “I’m just telling John about the weekend and how (staff name) walked all the way up the hill and back down with his waterproof pants on back to front, remember the look on his face when (young person) pointed this out?” This young person had also been on the walking trip and as she started to smile, the look of relief on her face was amazing. In addition to not being the butt of the joke, she was invited in to share the laugh; a potential for disaster ended in an opportunity for intervention and building up of relationship.

Henry Maier (1987) tells us about rhythmicity being a “salient underlying force: the synchronization of child and caring adult”. Here in this moment a “tuning in” occurred, an instance of feeling completely “outside the loop” was flipped into a sharing of a moment of moving ahead together.

Later that evening the staff member took the young person aside and spoke to her about what had happened. She explained that we were having a laugh and that we saw in her face that she thought we were laughing at her. She went on to talk about the importance of not jumping to conclusions and not to think that people were always laughing at her. The young person was able to talk about how she felt when she heard the laughing and saw us looking at her, she recognized that she felt uncomfortable and sad at that moment. This became an area of herself that the young person agreed to work on, realizing it was part of her self-esteem and lack of self-confidence. She further spoke about feeling great when she was “invited in” and the sense of belonging that she had sharing the laugh with us.

Laughter and humour in general can be a great ally in the work that we do, but if not handled correctly can be most destructive. There should always “be a clear objective when using humour; there needs to be a purpose in mind, an intention to achieve an appropriate and predictable outcome” (Digney, 2005). When you find yourself in a situation like that above, think about how it looks to the young person, think about the meaning they are making and if necessary take corrective action immediately “or like me, pray that your colleagues are as fast to think and to act as mine!


Digney, J. (2005). Towards a Comprehension of the Roles of Humour in Child and Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice. 18 (4), 9-18

Garfat, T. (1998). The Effective Child and Youth Care Intervention: A Phenomenological Inquiry. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12 (1-2), 23.

Klein, L. (1998). The Courage to Laugh: Humour, Hope and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Maier, H. (1987) Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth: Concepts and Practice. New York: Haworth Press.

Peter, L.J., & Dana, B. (1982). The Laughter Prescription. New York: Ballantine Books.

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