What Children's Jokes Reveal About Their Mental Health

Children talking in the snow
Children talk to each other as they stand outside their house after a snowfall. Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Just like adults, children use humor in their everyday lives. Some like to make fun of themselves, whereas others like to laugh at the expense of others. But what effect does a child's humor have, for example, on their relationships with others and how they feel about themselves? To find out, we studied the use of humor in children aged between 11 and 16, and discovered a link between a child's humor style and their mental health.

Our study is based on previous research into styles of humor among adults. Rod Martin and colleagues used a questionnaire to identify four different types of humor: self-enhancing, affiliative, self-defeating and aggressive. They found evidence to suggest that someone's styles of humor can have positive or negative impact on their relationships with others and their psychological wellbeing.

Self-enhancing humor is used to enhance oneself, to boost one's own sense of self, but is not detrimental to others. For example, someone who is feeling a bit upset about a situation can try to think of something funny about the situation so they feel better about it. Affiliative humor enhances relationships with others and reduces interpersonal tensions. For example, laughing and joking around with one's friends. These two forms of humor are known as "adaptive" humor styles.

Self-defeating humor is often used to enhance relationships with others at the expense of oneself, whereas aggressive humor can be used to make yourself feel better at the expense of others—such as making fun of another person. These two forms are known as "maladaptive" because of evidence that suggests they are potentially damaging to an individual. It has been suggested that continual use of aggressive humor can alienate others, eventually having a detrimental effect on the user. Self-defeating humor can harm an individual's mental health, since it involves putting yourself down and repressing one's own emotional needs to appease others.

It's useful to distinguish between these forms as they have been linked to aspects of psychological and social adjustment. In many different studies, adults who use adaptive styles of humor are typically found to have better mental health and higher self-esteem, while those using maladaptive humor styles tend to have high levels of anxiety and depression and lower self-esteem. Use of aggressive humor also tends to be associated with social maladjustment—those who use it are more likely to experience problems in their interpersonal relationships.

Humor in children

From reading about the humor-styles approach we wanted to apply the model to children and young people by asking children to complete a series of questionnaires at the beginning and end of the school year. We found the links between humor styles and adjustment that have been found in adults also apply to children.

Our study, published in Europe's Journal of Psychology, found that those using self-defeating humor at the beginning of the school year were more likely to experience an increase in loneliness and symptoms of depression at the end of the year, along with a decrease in self-esteem. This can also lead to a vicious circle of depressive symptoms, causing a further increase in the use of self-defeating humor and so forth.

However, we also found that those using self-defeating humor do not necessarily fare badly. Few people use only one style, but rather a combination of different styles. So we decided to take a broader approach to our analysis, categorising the children as either "interpersonal humorists", that includes those who scored above average on aggressive and affiliative humor, but below average on the other two humor styles. "Self-defeaters", who scored high on this style of humor, but low on all three others. The "humor endorsers" scored above average on all four humor styles. And finally, "adaptive humorists" scored high on the two adaptive styles of humor, but low on aggressive and self-defeating humor.

The self-defeaters scored highest on social adjustment in comparison to the humor endorsers, who appeared to use self-defeating humor to an even greater extent than the self-defeaters themselves. This suggests that the negative effects of using self-defeating humor could be reduced if used alongside other more positive styles.

What this means is that we should try to encourage greater use of the more positive self-enhancing and affiliative types of humor, since they appear to benefit mental health and self-esteem. Self-defeating humor, despite seeming to make others feel better in the short term, can lead to psychological and social adjustment problems, and so should be discouraged, or perhaps used in combination with more positive styles of humor.

So how can this be achieved? My recent work with Lucy James involves an innovative educational intervention to explain the different styles of humor and their impact to school children. This is not so much about teaching children to be "funny"—it's about educating them about the potential positive and negative effects of the ways in which humor can be used, that will hopefully improve their relationships with others and how they feel about themselves.

Claire Fox is senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University.