Child and Family Counseling Center, San Diego, offices in Del Mar and Encinitas
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Laughing Matters:
the Healing Power of Laughter
by Dr. Margo Napoletano, PhD, RPT-S

One day a pediatric nurse entered the exam room to give a 4 year-old girl named Annie her vaccination shot.  As the needle was about to be inserted into her arm, Annie screamed:  “No! No! No!”  Annie’s mother scolded her and said:  “That’s not polite behavior.”  With that, the little girl yelled even louder:  “No thank you!”  “No thank you!” “No thank you!”

Go ahead and laugh.  It’s strong medicine, as researchers are learning.  Just the physical act of laughing has healthy benefits, as William Fry, professor emeritus at Stanford University and pioneer in laughter research, says.  “Muscles are activated, heart rate is increased, respiration is amplified, with increase in  oxygen exchange—all similar to the desirable effects of athletic exercise…A hundred belly laughs is the aerobic equivalent of ten minutes on a rowing machine…” according to Fry.   Other research shows that the average American laughs about 15 times a day (if your daily total is less than 15, you’re under-laughed!).  The average 4 year-old laughs about every four minutes!

Recent research shows that laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, says Lee Berk of the University of California at Irvine.  His research showed that watching a humorous video decreases the levels of two stress hormones that can cause irregular heart rhythms, which can lead to heart attacks.  Other research shows that laughter clears the respiratory passages, stimulates alertness hormones, decreases tension in the central nervous system, counteracts negative emotions linked to physical illness (such as fear, anger and depression), and relieves pain.  In fact, in a landmark experiment at UCLA, called Rx Laughter, scientists plan to test the effect of laughter in children with serious illness, including cancer.  Early results suggest that humorous videos help kids handle uncomfortable or painful procedures.  Bill Marx, the son of the legendary Harpo Marx and a volunteer for the Rx Laughter study, told jokes, made faces and danced around the hospital rooms of the children.  One 13 year-old patient said:  “Having something to laugh at took my mind off the pain…when you’re laughing, you can’t help but feel better.”

Speaking of children and humor, ready for more riddles?

“What kind of dog is it OK to bite?”  “A hot dog.”
“Why did the little kid take a ladder to school?  “He wanted to go to high school.”
“Why was 6 afraid of 7?  Because 7 8 (ate) 9.”
“Knock. Knock.”  Who’s there?” “Boo.”  “Boo who?”  “Why are you crying?”

These riddles may not make you laugh, but they may cause a 4-5 year-old to giggle, and be absolutely hilarious to a 6-7 year-old. Humor is a personal experience for everyone and, for children, it depends on their developmental level, which includes their age and level of thinking.  A typical 4 year-old cannot understand double meanings, but can imitate the pattern of knock-knock jokes.  That alone can make him or her laugh.  It‘s like a “pre-riddle” stage of development.

Research shows that humor in children is associated with higher intelligence, creativity, sociability, empathy, self-esteem and problem-solving.  These children tend to be well-liked by their peers and adults.  So says psychologist and humor researcher Louis Franzini of San Diego State University, author of “Kids Who Laugh, How to Develop Your Child’s Sense or Humor (Square One Press). 

Paul McGhee, a researcher on children’s humor and author of “Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children’s Humor,” believes “there’s a bonding process that occurs…you feel closer to someone you share a laugh with.  That can happen as young as 12 months.”   In view of these positive characteristics, there are some things that parents and other adults can do to encourage a child’s development of humor.  First, it’s important to know the general stages of development for what makes children laugh.  A sense of humor develops  during the first year of life and proceeds through a series of stages as the child grows older. 

10 weeks after birth:  mainly reflexive laughter, at surprises or in relief at such bodily sensations as passing gas or after a bowel movement.  By the 16th week, they’re already laughing about once an hour.
6-12 months:  a baby’s first laugh is typically not humor, but a response to a physical sensation of touch and sound such as being tickled.  At this age, they take delight in a caregiver’s unexpected action, such as playing “peekaboo.”
1 year:    goes from reacting to something funny to imitating and initiating it, such as
2 years:  makes “mistakes” to show mastery, such as you asking her to show you her elbow, and she points to her knee
3 years:  says nonsense words, ideas and objects, known as slapstick and potty humor (asking for muddy ice cream and a bug cookie)
4-5 years:  pre-riddle stage, when they know the structure, but not the content, such as “why did the chicken cross the road?”  “To get to the other side.”
6-7 years:  understanding deepens and their humor reflects multiple meanings in words, such as covering the dog with a blanket and calling him a hot dog.  Understanding of simple riddles and knock-knock jokes occurs at this stage.

So, if you wanted to help a child develop their sense of humor, here are some tips:

  • Create a humor center or a laughter library:  post funny cartoons, jokes/riddles you heard, favorite pictures, etc. At dinner time, ask: “What’s the funniest thing you heard today?” Give joke books and funny movies as a gift to loved ones
  • Create “Laffirmations” or laugh affirmations (pun intended!): a collection of your favorite jokes, stories, movies, etc.
  • When your child repeats a riddle, pretend you are hearing it for the first time.  Providing the answer would only discourage development.  Instead, you can encourage their development by saying:  “Let’s make up a new one.”  “I have a new one for you.”
  • It’s best not to explain why their joke isn’t funny.  If they can’t understand their joke in the first place, an explanation will only frustrate them. If you ask a young child why their joke is funny, even if they don’t understand it, the answer often is “because it makes me laugh” or “because it makes my mom or day laugh.”
  • If older siblings say “That’s not funny, it’s stupid.”  Suggest they go along with it anyway, just as you did for them at that age.
  • If your child’s riddle is hurtful, tell them:  “Jokes can be hurtful, just like words or tools, they can be misused.  If you think a joke might hurt someone’s feelings, I want you to talk with me about it.” 
  • A child who frequently gets into trouble at school for inappropriate humor might be needing attention or be bored. Talk with the teacher to help  resolve the situation such as creating a “riddle” activity or day. If that doesn’t resolve the trouble, it might be helpful to talk with a counselor
  • What’s your own sense of humor like?  Children imitate and learn from you.

Summary:  laughter is a form of physical and mental fitness throughout the day.  According to Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness, who laughed himself into recovery from a painful rheumatoid disease:  “Laughter is like internal jogging.”