John Digney

Humour, ever present in Child and Youth Care, is reliant on relationship. This series explores the use of humour as an aid to connecting with kids. The author sets out a warning and concludes on a cautionary note, reminding us not to become over reliant on humour and to be aware of its pitfalls in relationship development.

Explanations of “humour” have been proposed by writers and philosophers back as far as the early Greeks, with considerable speculation about the variety of mechanisms that are employed for humorous purposes. The one common theme throughout is that humour is a complex phenomenon, and it is widely accepted that no single general theory or definition of humour exists. Any theory cannot be based solely on the techniques of humour in isolation, but must also take into account internal and external contexts and relationships.

Through the provision of examples and research data humour writers (e.g., Adams, 1993; Kuhlman, 1984) have made the point that the notion of relationship is of vital importance when examining the functions and reactions to humour or attempts at humour.

Humour can be used by anyone. Elsewhere, (Digney, 2006) I have identified what I consider to be the six most important of these functions: Caring, Connecting, Communicating, Cajoling, Concealing and Coping. If utilized appropriately all these functions can be viewed as strengths or assets. In this series of papers I shall discuss these six concepts and explore their relevance in terms of a strengths-based focus in relationships. These six functions are heavily influenced by or interwoven into relationships, and it is this interaction and interdependence which compelled Laurence Peters (1982) to state, “humour is easier to recognize than to analyse or understand” (p147). This paper focuses on “humour and connection”.

Child and Youth Care practice has always focused on relationships (Garfat, 2008), and for years we have examined its importance in our field (e.g., Brendtro, 1969; Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 2002; Fewster, 1990; Gannon, 2003; Garfat, 1998, 2003; Maier, 1992). As Garfat (2008) reminds us, “as the field evolved” focus shifted from simply having a relationship to being in relationship with other” (p. 1). Garfat provides a model that briefly describes this evolution before turning to the current focus which emphasizes the in-between between self and other. It is in this “in-between” where relationship forms; it is here that “the opportunity for a co-created connected experiencing” occurs. And it is here, in the in-between between us where humour exists in relationship.

A bit about humour
Having a sense of humour does not imply that one spends their life laughing at everything, nor does a person with a sense of humour make jokes out of “life”. A person with a sense of humour sees the humour that is already there, or as Johnson (1992) says, “you can see that funny side along with the serious side” (p. 109).

It is truly difficult to define humour, but it is easily recognizable when we come across it. As Sully (1902), observed long ago, “hardly a word in the language would be harder to define with scientific precision than this familiar one” (p. 297). Most dictionary definitions emphasize two distinct meanings. First, humour is seen and defined in the context of a physiological or cognitive experience pertaining to the discovery and appreciation of absurdly or incongruous ideas, events or situations”. Second, humour can be defined against a background of the attributes of an event, situation or idea, which causes us to laugh.

Incongruity is a term that comes up repeatedly in the humour literature. Incongruity refers to the relationship between components of an object, event, idea, etc., in that when the elements of an event are incompatible with the normal or expected pattern, the event is perceived as incongruous. It is through this incongruity, which if harnessed by ourselves and indeed the youth with whom we work, that we can begin and maintain a relationship.

Humour, relationship and connection
It is useful to remember that young people often have a great sense of humour and tapping into this can lead to engagement with youth, which in turn may facilitate us in the process of connecting with them. Humour can be, and often is, used as a mechanism for facilitating a connection with another. When beginning to get to know someone, it is often the case that one may feel vulnerable, afraid of rejection, or have concerns about ones capacity for interacting appropriately. Often in these situations, a new situation, a joke or humorous comment/story allows us to feel more at ease; it can be a non-threatening way of “breaking the ice”. Henry Maier (2003, p.40), states that, “Playful interaction between worker and child is a good way to form a beginning connection”. This “playful” exchange need be only for the briefest of moments, for as Brendtro & du Toit (2005, p. 56) said, “brief encounters can provide powerful teaching moments for developing meaningful connections” and getting that initial connection is key in the formation of relationship.

Often in such circumstances, using humour to set aside some of the “social rules” or requirements can create the opening for connection. Seita & Brendtro (2005) tell us that some kids, “adult wary kids” as they called them, have developed a variety of self-defensive techniques or battle tactics of fight, flight, or fool, to protect themselves. On occasion the “fight” kid will use an aggressive or sarcastic form of humour, as will the “fool” kid. We, as professionals, need to be aware of this fact so that in addition to being able to use humour for the purpose of connecting, we can see when kids are using humour to protect themselves from us and perhaps be working against “connecting” with a person whom they do not yet know nor trust.

Trust, respect, understanding and empowerment
When using humour as a way to form a positive connection with a young person we need to attend to the four main things: trust, respect, understanding and empowerment, (Brendtro & du Toit, 2005, p. 56) We can show kids that we trust them enough to share a funny and positive experience with them. We need to ensure that there are no signs of rancor, disrespect or sarcasm contained in our use of humour.

We must always show respect to the youth, their families and the people/things they hold dear when attempting to use humour with them. To understand their position and their context is vital. Humour can be used to “test the water” or create understanding in relationship. Indeed, some emphasis has been given to the use of spontaneous humour within the area of psychotherapy where it has been described by Heuscher (1980) as a way to “break the ice” for discussion (connection). It can be used to gauge how receptive or understanding the client is and the therapist can use humour to decide whether or not to continue along a particular line.

Humour should be part of an equal relationship, it creates a forum that can be empowering of youth, treating them as social equals and allowing them opportunities to decided how to be in relationship with us.

Having made a connection, we often find that sharing a laugh with kids can be the best way to augment the development of this new relationship. Again, Garfat (2008) reminds us, “As our relationship with other develops and we become more familiar, more secure, more intimate, and more vulnerable, the space between us changes” gradually the in-between becomes composed of us” (p. 2). Is it not better that part of the “in-between” is composed of fun and allows for mutually amusing times.

It is essential to remind ourselves of the potential pitfalls of using humour in relationship with young people, especially young people who have had difficult experiences of adults and who find it difficult to trust. It is essential that we always have a clear objective when using humour. We need to have a purpose in mind, an intention to achieve an appropriate and predictable outcome. We must also be very aware of the milieu, the people present and the relationships/dynamics that exist between these individuals.

We must never attempt to force humour. Indeed we must remain sensitive to the feelings of the young person with an understanding that they may be in crisis and timing and understanding are vital. Humour must never be used to collude with youth for this is unprofessional and can lead to distrust and misunderstanding, (Digney, 2005).

As humour often involves laughter, remember that young people who are used to being treated as objects may assume the worst. Laughter in working with young people, as with most aspects of humour, can be very useful and therapeutic. However, if not read correctly by the youth, laughter can undermine and seriously damage relationships (we don’t want kids thinking we are laughing at them). Humour and laughter can be a great ally in the work that we do, but if not handled correctly they can also be most destructive.


Adams, H.C. (1993) Gesundheit. Rochester, Vermont. Healing Arts Press.

Brendtro, L. (1969). Establishing relationship beachheads. In Trieschman, A., Whittaker, J.K. and Brendtro, L.K. The other 23 hours: Child care worker with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu. pp54-56. New York. Aldine.

Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future (Rev. ed.). National Educational Service. Bloomington, IL.

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

Digney, J. (2005). Reflections on Humour in Child & Youth Care.

Digney, J. (2006). Towards a comprehension of the therapeutic use of humor in Child and Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18, 4. pp. 9-15.

Fewster, G. (1990). Being in Child Care: A Journey Into Self. New York. Haworth.

Gannon, B. (2003). The improbable relationship. Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, 16, 3. pp. 6-9.

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

Garfat, T., (2008, in press). The Inter-personal In-between: An Exploration of Relational Child & Youth Care Practice. In G. Bellefuille & F. Ricks (eds) Child and Youth Care Practice.

Heuscher. J.E. (1980) The Role of Humor and Folklore themes in Psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 137. pp. 1546-1549.

Johnson, B. (1992). Splashes of Joy in the Cesspool of Life. Dallas. Word Publishing.

Kuhlman, T.L., (1984). Humor and Psychotherapy. Illinois. Dow Jones-Erwin.

Maier, H. (1992) Rhythmicity: A powerful force for experiencing unity and personal connections. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, 8. pp. 7-13.

Maier, H.W. (2003). What to Say When first meeting a Person Each Day, Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, 16, 3. pp. 40-41.

Peters, L.J., and Dana, B., (1982). The Laughter Prescription; How to achieve Health, Happiness and Peace of Mind through Humor. New York. Ballantine Books.

Seita, J., & Brendtro, L. (2005) Kids who Outwit Adults. Bloomington. IN:Solution Tree.

Sully, J., (1902) Essay on Laughter. New York. Longmans-Greens

From: CYC-Online 111: May 2008