CYC-Net on Facebook CYC-Net on Twitter Search CYC-Net

Join Our Mailing List

114 AUGUST 2008

ListenListen to this


Humour, relationships and concealing

John Digney

In relationship with other, the general rule of thumb is to be open and honest. Being truthful is the foundation to developing trust. So, why use the word concealing in the same title as the word relationships? Are the two words not incongruous? The answer lies in a simple and common phenomenon, that of hiding our pain from other. Kids hide many things from adults, not least of which is their pain and confusion. We, the adults, also hide emotions from the young people we work with and a lot of the time this is appropriate, but the important point is how this manifests itself. If we are, for example, feeling fear in any situation where we are with young people, it is not acceptable to mask this fear in an angry or sarcastic way.

This paper sets out to discuss the utilization of humour as part of an adult strategy to “conceal” and on occasion to “disguise” emotions, pain and, concern/expression of concern. This follows up the previously discussed notion of young people using humour to conceal their feelings from us. (Digney, 2005, p.15), – remember that many young people may feel exploited, let down and exposed from their previous experiences. Given this, it is not surprising that they will find methods to avoid showing their true feelings – may present as being “jolly” when in fact they are using humour – to mask their true feelings or even to gauge a reaction, if they are considering “opening themselves up” to staff”.

Adults – concealing pain
We all have days when we are “out of sorts”. Things at home might be difficult, the baby isn’t sleeping, the grandmother is back in hospital, or the cost of servicing the mortgage has increased again. We can get preoccupied with both internal and external stressors and this can have a negative effect on our mood – this is very normal. However, when coming in to work with young people with their own pain, where we want to attend to our relationship, we ought to search for strategies to conceal any negative emotions. At this time I am not referring to the “transference” and “counter-transference” that occurs in psycho-dynamic relationships, but to the “daily life” (Garfat, 1998), relationship we have with the young people, with whom we share most of our day.

Brendtro and Du Toit (2005, p.78) remind us that, “the only antidote to negative emotion is to arouse positive emotion”. So, should we be, for example, suffering from a low mood, we need to portray a positive mood. This can be achieved through the use of humour, which in the eyes of our colleagues and the kids, makes us more approachable, more reasonable and more fun to be around. It is always good to remember the words of William Shakespeare, “Nothing is good or bad. It is thinking that makes it so."

Burchiel and King (1999) agree with this sentiment, iterating that where as sometimes we have no control over situations, we can control our view of them. Chinery (2007) agrees and goes on to state that humour has the additional benefit of allowing us balance feelings and emotions, “which results in us feeling relaxed confident and in control” (p.178)

Adults – concealing fear
Brendtro (1969, p. 63-64) gives an example of an interaction between a staff and some kids – using humour. Some kids had been giving the counselors a hard time, overtly proclaiming they were going to break some more rules. This is a true “putting it up” situation. Through a humorous response the worker was able to conceal his anxiety at the situation and was able to “cajole” the kids along, changing the “tense atmosphere”. Brendtro suggests that had the worker “lost his cool”, his status would have declined and the kids would have likely followed through on their threatening behaviour. This notion of masking fear or other situation inappropriate emotions and controlling of stressful situations is also discussed by Redl (1966), who states that “a sense of humour is so obviously the most vital characteristic of the skillful handler of discipline problems or tough group situations” (p.303). He encourages workers to “rely a little more on yourself, your “person”, and your sense of humour” (p.306) and to not be jittery for “fear that you will “jeopardize” your dignity in the eyes of your kids.” (p. 307).

Adults – concealing/disguising a message
Quite often we rely on stealth to “send a message” – using the “backdoor”. This can be the acknowledgement of a truth, making a point, providing feedback, initiating a discussion, raising a concern, etc. We do this in our daily lives: kids also do it and it is very common to do so through the mechanisms of humour in our professional lives. Careful and skillful use of humour can allow for young people to drop defences, this in turn makes them more receptive to our messages. When this type of light hearted discourse occurs and the mood is right, we can raise points or concerns in an unthreatening manner, allowing them to be better received and internalized. This idea is akin to the method of using “sandwich scripts” when an initial comment/interaction with a young person is designed to “disarm” their brains defence systems and allow a criticism be received. This internalizing (this hitting home) can be observed in the young person's reactions. If done correctly this “getting through” can aid in the creation of what Seita & Brendtro (2005) term, “The Respectful Alliance” “where the young person sees this adult as someone to trust. The young person can see that the adult does not want to hurt them and is taking the time to help them understand through taking the time to communicate in a manner that eases the pain.

It is also useful to note that if humour is used skillfully, it can also serve as an indicator for the worker in how much of the message is being received. This process is concisely put forward by actor and comedian, John Cleese, “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at a particular point that I make, by laughing at it, you acknowledge its truth.”

As with most uses of humour in the caring professions it is essential to warn against the pitfalls and to be aware of the unhealthy uses of humour in hiding truth from ourselves and others. Greenson (1967) points out throughout this work that attempts to engage in humorous exchanges during treatment may signify the patient’s resistance to acknowledging negative transferences. The use of humour in therapy has also been viewed as having disparaging implications. It has been described as a form of acting out by Reich (1949), as a form of seduction by Fenichel (1945) and as a resistance to treatment by Anna Freud (1946). It is important to continue to check our intentions when using humour to hide our feeling. If we are afraid of or worried about our professional milieu or constantly using humour to get through the days we need to (with assistance) figure out why and take correctative action.


Brendtro, L. (1969). Establishing Relationship Beachheads. In A. E. Trieschman, J. K. Whittaker and L. K. Brendtro (Eds.). The Other Twenty Three Hours: Child-care Work with Emotionally Disturbed Children in a Therapeutic Milieu. New York. Aldine. pp.219-235.

Brendtro, L., and Du Toit, L. (2005). Response Ability Pathways “Restoring Bonds of Respect. Cape Town. Pretext.

Burchiel, R. and King, C. (1999). Incorporating Fun into the Business of Serious Work: The use of Humour in Group Processes. Seminars in Perioperative Nursing, 8, 2. pp. 60-70

Chinery, W. (2007). Alleviating Stress with Humour: A Literature Review. Journal of Perioperative Practice, 17, 4. pp.172-182

Digney, J. (2005). Towards a comprehension of the roles of humour in Child and Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18, 4. pp. 9-18.

Fenichel, O. (1945). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York. W.W.Norton.

Freud, A. (1946). The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence. New York International University Press.

Garfat, T. (1998). The effective Child and Youth Care intervention: A phenomenological inquiry. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 1and 2. pp. 5-178.

Greenson, G. (1967). The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis. New York. I.U.P.

Redl, F. (1966). When we Deal with Children. New York. The Free Press

Reich, W. (1949) Character Analysis. 3rd Edition. New York. Orgone Institute Press.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

Board of Governors | Constitution | Funding | Site Content and Usage | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Contact us

iOS App Android App