How Can I Get My Child to Be Serious When They Need to Be?

A sense of humor serves a child well—but when pranks are misplaced, humor can go awry. Here's how to teach them some balance.

An illustration of a girl jumping up and down as the mom watches.
Photo: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

Parent of a Prankster

My kid has always been a jokester and loves pulling pranks. He's pretty hilarious! The problem is it seems he is never serious even in situations where jokes aren't acceptable. Is there a way I can help him curb the humor when he should be more serious?

—Parent of a Prankster

Dear Parent of a Prankster,

A sense of humor is a wonderful trait for a child to have. It serves them well throughout life, connects them with others in a fun, positive way, and plays a role in crucial social development as they grow up.

But sure, sometimes it can be misplaced: Your child makes a joke at an otherwise serious time, or your little one pulls pranks when it's—well—really not funny.

If your child receives a fair amount of positive attention for his humor (which, for every child, is the greatest reinforcer), they might turn to humor to "impress" others, even at inopportune times.

Other times, humor can be a sign that a child is uncomfortable, serving as a nervous response.

Some children also use laughs to make people around them feel better. It can be their way of helping. And while sometimes that is helpful, there are times to be serious, too.

Here are a few ways to make sure your child's funny side helps them shine, but that they can also be a little bit more serious when need be.

Humor can be a sign that a child is uncomfortable, serving as a nervous response.

Ask Them Questions

If you feel as though your child is trying to be funny or turning to humor at uncomfortable or inappropriate times, pick a recent time this happened, and ask them how they felt and what they were thinking at that moment.

Their level of insight, will, of course, depend on their age and personality (children under 7 will have the hardest time with self-awareness), but it's a starting point.

Even being able to realize that they're nervous is a sign of great emotional awareness—but some children may need you to notice their nervous signs and reflect back to them that this may be what's going on. So if your child isn't sure how they were feeling or is under age 7, you could say something like, 'I think you were feeling nervous, so you wanted to make people laugh. That's OK but if you're nervous, there are other ways to feel better." Practicing reflecting a child's experience back to them will help them develop their own awareness without your coaching in due time.

If your child talks about wanting to help others feel better, you can brainstorm with other ways to show empathy, such as offering a hug or asking if they can help. It's always heartwarming to see our children care for others, and it's OK if they need some tips on how to demonstrate empathy in more appropriate ways.

Give Guidance

If your child really doesn't know why they do what they do (a most likely scenario), it's OK to be direct that you are going to help them respond more appropriately in serious situations in the future. In fact, you can encourage them to check with you: "Mom, is this one of those serious times I shouldn't make jokes?"

During a serious moment, it's also OK to stay physically close to your child and whisper something like, "Do you see how the adults are not smiling, and are talking about a serious topic? This is when you stay quiet and let them talk." Be as clear and specific as possible about observing others' social cues and describing what is appropriate behavior, instead of only what is not.

Set an Example

Remember: Our children are always watching us! We are teaching them not only with our words but often even more with our behaviors. You can remind your child of times you have laughed with them during funny moments and how you look serious in serious moments. It might be interesting to ask, "What does mommy do when it's a serious conversation? How do I look?"

The Bottom Line

Your child's sense of humor will serve them well in so many ways! Research has shown that kids with a well-developed one tend to be happier and more optimistic with higher self-esteem, and they cope better with stressful life events. In addition, laughing more has been linked with a lower risk of depression, fewer physical problems such as better digestion and lower blood pressure, and even a lower vulnerability to illness. You can nurture their sense of humor as a positive trait while also teaching them more about understanding social situations. In fact, this lesson may help them learn not only how to best help others but also how to better understand themselves.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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