ListenListen to this


Humour, relationships and communication

John Digney

In various papers I have highlighted the history and importance of humour in our work with kids and described various theories (e.g., Digney, 2005, 2007). The first paper in this series (Digney, 2008) focused on the use of humour as an aid to connecting with youth. Humour, however, can also be used to change dynamics, milieus and moods. It can be used to make a situation better, at least in the short term. Henry Maier (1987) tells us that it (humour) can be useful to, “relax and to influence her/him to find more appropriate activities or expressions” (p. 145). In this vein the present article will expand on previous writings, concentrating on the use of humour as a way of, or an aid to, communication.

Brendtro (1969) reminded us that every day we have “hundreds of opportunities to communicate “there is a wide range in the ability to communicate with disturbed children” (p. 72). He also reminded us that even adults can find it difficult to communicate without the use of “props”. Humour, I propose, can be used as a prop, as a way to begin or maintain a conversation, as a way to communicate a point, and as a way to communicate to a young person that, “there is no threat here”.

Klein (1998) reminds us that humour can be used to “break down barriers or build them up, separate people or bond them, cut off communication or enhance it” (p.32). It is a powerful tool, and it is something we are all equipped with, a tool than can enhance or degenerate communication. Maier (1987, p. 145) set out some warning on its dangers also, “sarcasm, cynicism, at the expense of others does not constitute humo(u)r”.

Communication in Child and Youth Care practice
Garfat (1998) suggested that effective child and youth care relationships develop as a result of “openness and respect which the helper displays in relation to the youth (Fewster, 1990), attentive interpersonal communication (Brendtro, 1969), commitment and compassion (Krueger, 1988), being present with the youth (Ricks, 1989), and through doing things together” (p.132). Communication is an essential part of any relationship, but communication in any form is complex, as it requires interpretation, both by the “giver” and the “receiver”. As Polanyi (1962), stated in writing about interpersonal communication, “only a speaker or listener can mean something by a word, and a word, in itself can mean nothing” (p. 252). The same applies also where the communication is non-verbal, through a look, an action, a symbol or a gesture.
Communication is occurring all the time, in so many different ways, on so many different levels. “Good communication” and understanding how best to communicate in any given situation is something we strive for. Learning how to communicate is part of growing up and often we struggle to find a way to communicate that is comfortable, safe and easy.

Communication and humour
Mindess (1972) describes one of the social functions of humour as “kidding” or as they say in the North of Ireland, “only slagging”. It is seen to inject some elements of “familiarity into the impersonality with which we treat each other; it allows us to communicate our irritability into a socially acceptable fashion; and it encourages an ideational game that releases us from the manacles of sober, factual reality” (p. 103). Humour provides a channel for communicating our hidden feelings and thoughts, “we say in jest what we dare not say in seriousness because we can get away with it, if challenged by protesting “I was only joking–” (p. 118). How many times a day do we hear that very phrase?

If, for example, a young person is embarrassed or concerned about some issue, she may use humor as a way of communicating her desire to initiate conversation or discussion. Doing this can get a topic raised without allowing others to see this concern “ humor is a way through which people can say the things that they feel, without having to openly express them. Staff might utilize humor in this manner also.

In child and youth care we often use the approach of reliving personal anecdotes and telling stories to communicate a message or “moral”. Indeed, stories are “congruent with the child and youth care history of sharing understanding “the emerging direction in the field towards story-telling as a vehicle for therapeutic communication” (Peterson, 1994:, as cited in Garfat, 1998, p.50). Humour can be utilised in much the same way, as a vehicle for therapeutic communication.

Freud (1905) and Lacan (1957/58) believed very strongly that humour is a window into our unconscious and can be used as a conduit through which the unconscious can communicate. We are frequently being reminded that all behaviour serves a purpose, that it is a means of communicating what we feel and what we think. Humour too communicates in this manner. Listening to the jokes and “funny stories” that a young person tells can help us get a snapshot of the “inside kid”, how their private logic is working and perhaps, if we listen closely enough, how they are feeling at that time. If the joke is tendentious (presented with personal bias to support a viewpoint), we might see that they are feeling angry, annoyed, happy, aggrieved, etc.

Humor can facilitate discourse in a manner that may help someone talk about, and people cope with, an issue, problem or trauma. Humor, through the mechanism of “the joke”, can help uncover an unconscious desire, if we have the ability and desire to make an accurate interpretation.
Rose (1969) believes that a humor-laden interpretation overcomes resistance by initiating a desensitizing process, to allow introduction or easing into a difficult interpretation, a concept very akin to the notion of “sandwich scripts” (Brendtro & Du Toit, 2005), where we seek to “disarm the amygdales” to allow positive criticism be received.

Given its versatility, humor can be used as a vehicle through which communication and solution finding can take place. As stated by Fritz Redl in 1944 and republished in his selected writings in 1966, “rely a little more on yourself, your “person” and your sense of humor “real, especially self-directed, humor is the most disarming thing you can find in work with children” (p.307)


Brendtro, L. (1969). Avoiding some of the roadblocks to therapeutic management. 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.

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

Digney, J. (2007). A time to laugh, a time to think, a time to act. Retrieved from

Digney, J. (2008). Humour in connecting in relationship.

Fewster, G. (1990). Growing together: the personal relationship in child and youth care. In J. Anglin, C. Denholm, R. Ferguson and A. Pence (Eds.). Perspectives in Professional Child and Youth Care: Part I. New York. Haworth Press. pp. 25-40.

Freud, S. (1905). Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Standard Edition. p. viii.

Garfat, T. (1998). The effective, Child and Youth Care intervention: A phenomenological inquiry. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 1-2. p. 23.

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

Krueger, M. (1988). Intervention Techniques for Child and Youth Care Workers. Washington, DC. Child Welfare League of America.

Lacan, J. (1957-58). The Seminar of Jacque Lacan. Book 5. The Formations of the Unconscious. Unpublished translation by C. Gallagher.

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

Mindess, H. (1972). The Chosen People. Los Angeles. Nash Publishing

Peterson, R. (1994). The adrenaline metaphor: Narrative mind and practice in child and youth care. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9,2. pp. 107-121.

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Ricks, F. (1989). Self-awareness model for training and application in child and youth care. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4, 1. pp. 33-42.

Redl, F. (1966). When We Deal With Children: Selected Writings. New York. The Free 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