CYC-Online 83 DECEMBER 2005
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in the moment

“You’ve gotta be kidding me”: A reflection on humour in Child and Youth Care

John Digney

A man was walking his dog one evening when the dog suddenly died. The man lifted the dog and dropped it at the side of the road. A passer-by stopped and demanded, “I hope you are not going to leave that lying there?”

The man replied, “It’s not a lion, it’s a dog”.

When we write something down all too often it loses some of its impact. Verbally or at least phonetically the words “lying” and “lion” are quite similar, very different words, very different meanings but sound, similar. This is all part of the incongruent nature of humour and jokes.

Humour as a concept is exceptionally difficult to define, but it can be described as a message whose ingenuity or verbal skill or incongruity has the power to evoke laughter. It is this incongruity that we as Child and Youth Care workers can utilize as a valid approach to working with children and youth.

Incongruity Theory suggests that to find something funny we must see the incongruity, or absurdity in it. We allow ourselves to be led along a certain path, with certain expectations only have the direction change dramatically when the punch-line is delivered. It is this “twist” that we all too often find funny. Likewise, it is this “twist” that has it usefulness as an intervention.

The work Child and Youth Care is serious work indeed: We have responsibility to support, nurture and aid in the development of some of the most vulnerable children, young people and their families. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that some people find it incongruent that we would talk about using humour as an intervention or part of an interaction. Indeed as I am writing this, I am tempted to mention this story or that story, but keep stopping myself. I wonder if they would see these as inappropriate and worry that my work practice may be called into question? However, because I believe we need to explore and give credibility to this, I think that as professionals we need to share stories, discuss the times that we used “humorous” interventions and perhaps begin to accept that sometimes it is okay to “step out of the reality” of some situations, explore alternatives and begin to relate such interactions and interventions back to the Child and Youth Care Approach.

Some years ago, when I worked in a secure programme, I was standing outside a young person's room. Aaron had been locked into his room some five minutes earlier and had immediately begun to “smash it up”. My task was to observe and ensure he did not begin to self harm. As I stood watching, I attempted to reason with him, asking him to think about why he was behaving in this manner, asking him to calm down “all fuel to the fire, all like a red rag to a bull. I thought I would better serve Aaron by being quiet and by not being visible to him.

As I stood outside his door, beside the laundry cupboard, I decided to open the door of the cupboard in order to create a screen between us. Beside the cupboard was the clean laundry, returned earlier from our onsite launderette. I decided to ignore Aaron's behaviour and put away the laundry. It happened that some curtains were among the linen. For some reason, best known to my unconscious, I wrapped one of the large curtains around my waist, I wrapped a towel around my head and hung a sock from each ear. As I stood there in my new attire, Aaron feel silent. “Surely he can’t see me”, I panicked, “no he must be having a rest from smashing stuff”, or “maybe he realized he doesn’t have an audience”, I thought. Then he began to shout abusively through his door.

At this time I thought about how would he react if he were to see me now? Would he laugh? Would he become more abusive? Would the sight of me dressed in this manner be enough to allow me to re-connect with him briefly and help move this situation towards a resolution. “Right”, I said to myself, and stepped from behind my screen.

Well, the shouting stopped, he stared and stared and them said, “you've gotta be kidding me “and they tell me I’m messed up”. Good point! After a few second of laughing a conversation began and a short while later Aaron “came back into the programme”.

At a Child and Youth Care conference recently I talked about the therapeutic uses of humour, with special emphasis on humour as a way of communicating, connecting, cajoling, caring, concealing and coping. In this example, I believe I was attempting to do all six. I was communicating a desire to change the current milieu, I was attempting to connect or at least re-connect with Aaron, I was hoping to cajole him out of his state of anger, I was letting him know that I cared enough about him, that I didn’t mind him seeing me making an idiot out of myself, I was concealing my concern about how the situation would progress and I was attempting to cope with a threatening and abusive verbal onslaught.

But more than this, I was attempting to create a different way of “being with” Aaron, in his life at this time; to create a momentary contextual shift that could “shock” him back to a place where we could interact in a therapeutic manner.

For better or worse, I believe (though somewhat unintentionally) that this particular intervention matches very closely the characteristics associated with a Child and Youth Care Approach (see example Garfat and McElwee, 2005).

This interaction occurred by being with a young person as he lived his life. It was an intentional proactive intervention which was developmentally appropriate. The interaction occurred while “Hanging Out” and “Hanging In” with Aaron. It was an example of “doing with”, (not for or to) and was based on engagement and connection.

The interaction was based in the context of our “relationship”, could be described as having a needs-based focus and was focused on the present. In addition, this was without doubt a flexible and individual approach, with a focus on the context in which the interaction was occurring. I believe that I attended to and used the rhythmicity of the situation, whilst having clear self-awareness and using “self”. Finally, I think I can say that was about the use of daily life events (thankfully not an everyday event) as a focus for intervention.

As with every action, I think we should take some time to reflect, maybe not necessarily at the time, but sometime. Now, all these years later, I often think of this interaction and wonder about that day. I wonder if Aaron even remembers that event and has it remained with him in the same way it remains with me? And why is this something I wonder or worry about?

Did I act in a professional manner? Did this way of “being with” have any longer term effects on how Aaron is with “other”? But I suppose the most pressing question is, “Who’s benefit was it for anyway”?

I reminisce about that day and believe that I can remember making informed decisions, that I was going to present a situation to Aaron that he would find funny, a humorous diversion, that might change how he was behaving at that time. But as much as I reflect on this, I can’t help but wonder, whose needs was I trying to meet? Was Aaron not entitled to act out, was this not what he needed to do at that time, did I prevent him from being in an emotional place that was appropriate?

There is a series of questions that we as Child and Youth Care professionals need to be asking ourselves continually, like when is it appropriate to “act”, when is it appropriate to allow the youth to “act out” and how can we ever know how to differentiate?

But for me, at this stage of my exploration of interventions, I cannot help but wonder why we do not always feel comfortable in our use of humour as an intervention. Maybe this is linked to our fear of getting it wrong, or maybe it’s because we cannot always answer the question, “Who is it for?” “and herein lies the incongruity.


Garfat, T. & McElwee, N. (2005) Developing Effective Interventions with Families. Pretext Publishing: Cape Town, S.A.

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