Preschooler sensitive about laughing
August 29, 2014 9:00 AM   Subscribe

My almost-3-year-old is cute and delightful in all the typical ways. So, people smile and laugh when she says or does cute things. So what's the problem? The laughter makes her cry.

My daughter is adorable. She gets excited and runs around and says cute things, all the usual stuff for a child her age. However, whenever someone laughs, she gets super sensitive....she stops whatever she is doing, lowers her head as though she is ashamed, and often starts to cry. This happens whether it's her dad or myself, other adults she knows, or strangers. (And these are just usual fun laughs, nothing mean-spirited at all.)

This has been happening for quite awhile, and we don't know how to handle it. We always try to comfort her when it happens. At first, we tried to explain that we are laughing with her, not at her, but I think that's a little advanced for her age. We tell her that it's a "joke", people are not laughing AT often she will lower her head, frown, and say to herself, "just a joke, just a joke". But we can see that it upsets her. It takes her out of the fun moment she was having, and makes her feel bad about herself. It is absolutely heartbreaking to watch! I just want her to be herself and have fun.

She is a normal child, developing right on target for the most part. (A little on the late side with some physical milestones, but nothing out of the ordinary...walking at 15 months, a little late to start jumping, etc.) She is very bright and curious, and good with language. She tends to be shy around new people for the most part - not really hiding behind our legs or anything physical, but she can sometimes be hesitant to talk to new people.

Have any of you experienced something like this? How should we be handling it? This has probably been happening for about a year.... and while it has improved a little bit at times, it still happens quite often. We are at a loss...any and all suggestions are welcome.
posted by barnoley to Human Relations (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Same thing here, except mine gets angry.
I figure you are all laughing about something she doesn't get. So imagine someone kept laughing at you for being cute, ignoring what you were saying and that you want most of all to be taken seriously. It would get old pretty fast.
1) stop laughing, even if everyone else does. Instead, reply seriously.
2) explain the joke (mine sometimes gets angry if we laugh at something completely unrelated. Letting her in on it helps.)
posted by Omnomnom at 9:08 AM on August 29, 2014 [12 favorites]

Aw, she sounds really cute and sweet. I don't think you should be worried. Apparently when I was that age I would act silly and then would suddenly stop and scream "stop looking at me!!" and throw a fit. That went on for a long time. I'd file it under Small Children are Bizarre and continue what you are doing.
posted by gatorae at 9:09 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe start complimenting her that she is all the wonderful things that make you laugh. You are adorible. What you were doing was cute can you show us again? I love the way you think what else are you thinking? Get get back to doing what she was doing
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:10 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

My friends' kid was just like her. I think he did figure he was being ridiculed/not taken seriously, no matter what he was told, and just trying not to laugh was the best we could do. He grew out of it and has also become less shy as he got older.
posted by capricorn at 9:10 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe try explaining that she makes you (or everyone) so happy that just a smile isn't always enough. If she is OK with smiles and sees them as positive, maybe she can connect laughter with the equivalent of an extra-big smile because people like her.
posted by trivia genius at 9:12 AM on August 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Are you laughing when she's trying to be serious, or when she's trying to fly under the radar, or when she's trying to fit in with a group of grownups?

Is there a place (preschool? daycare? siblings?) where she *is* being subjected to mean laughter?
posted by mskyle at 9:24 AM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you make silly faces, etc., does she laugh at you? Could you make a game out of who can be the silliest on purpose to help her make the connection?
posted by PaulaSchultz at 9:28 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

My daughter, who just turned 5, was similar. She didn't cry, she would just get upset and demand that we "Stop Laughing!". I too tried to explain we were laughing with her and not at her. I, like you, expect that explanation was beyond her comprehension. I would also try to explain it to her kind of like trivia genius suggested above. I would definitely always stop laughing because I wanted her to feel respected and know that her feelings matter. But, ohhhh was that hard sometimes!! I mean, they do the funniest things, so I would turn away to laugh silently or walk in the other room to stifle it!!

At her 3rd and 4th birthday parties she covered her ears and shook her head "no" when everyone sang happy birthday to her. Which seemed related. BUT! At her recent 5th birthday party that did not happen. And she seems to have grown out of the "stop laughing" thing too - it's been so long I can't even remember the last time it happened.

tl;dr - She'll probably grow out of it as she develops and matures. Reiterate that you're not laughing at her. You and Dad (and any other adults you can get on board) respect and validate her feelings by calmly stopping when she asks you too.
posted by ZabeLeeZoo at 9:40 AM on August 29, 2014

She sounds awesome, actually. Some kids learn to do whatever it takes to be cute and make other people smile, but she will probably learn to please herself and seek the respect of others. Having just read an article about the dark side of being a comedian, this strikes me as (an extreme and problematic expression of) a personality that could work better when she's more adult and less cute-looking (hence less likely to unintentionally make people laugh).

Does _she_ laugh at things? Maybe helping her understand that it feels good for others just as it feels good for her could help. Still, her lack of interest in pleasing others by being laughed is something I find kind of encouraging -- provided it doesn't cause her too much pain.
posted by amtho at 9:49 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also -- is there anything you can do to help her look/seem less funny? Maybe a different haircut (if she wants it)? The "curls wildly flying around her face while wearing a fluffy pink jumper" look might be inherently less serious-looking than, say, something more orderly but still age-appropriate.
posted by amtho at 9:51 AM on August 29, 2014

If you are laughing at cute stuff that she did, when she was not deliberately trying to make you laugh, and does not understand why it was funny, that is really laughing AT her not WITH her.

I mean, maybe you don't feel mean spirited if I pronounce a common word completely wrong and this makes you laugh out loud, but I still won't like it.

Personally I think the solution is not to laugh at kids and to apologise when you do. There's enough opportunity to laugh WITH the kid when they discover funny things and you can laugh at those things together.

I particularly disrecommend laughing at kids when they say something unusually intelligent and serious. I know those moments really are funny, but to me that's about as great as waiting for your employee to finish her presentation on corporate strategy ideas and then laughing with all the other directors about how funny it is for a young lady to have an opinion about corporate strategy.
posted by emilyw at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2014 [48 favorites]

Instead of laughing, try saying, "you are SO delightful!"

See if that helps.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:08 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have dealt with this from the other side, as I was the quiet bookish kid who said what I assumed were normal polite conversational things and was met with adults shrieking with laughter at me, complete with head patting and cheek pinching. It was immensely frustrating and demoralizing and upsetting to deal with and it is definitely not the kind of formative influence you want your kids to learn from.

It is especially difficult because as a female human being, she is going to grow up in a world that will never fully value her thoughts and ideas at the level which they deserve, so to get her first taste of this at home from the people she loves and trusts the most, and at such a young age, is really unpleasant.
posted by elizardbits at 10:12 AM on August 29, 2014 [23 favorites]

(I don't mean that you are deliberately laughing at her, of course, or that you don't value her thoughts and ideas, I'm saying that at 3 years old she doesn't understand why you won't just talk to her like you would talk to anyone else asking questions or making observations.)
posted by elizardbits at 10:15 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just to answer the question that has come up a few times (what behaviour are we laughing at): it's not really when she says something that she thinks is serious, it's more like when she's running around excitedly, yelling something at the top of her lungs while smiling herself. So we're happy that she's happy, and so we laugh because it is so cute.

When she is saying something that she thinks is serious, we definitely do not laugh. We might smile, if it's super cute, but we are able to stifle our laughter.

Thanks for the suggestions so far! And I am relieved to hear that this is a somewhat common phenomenon... I hadn't yet met a kid who did this.
posted by barnoley at 10:22 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you watch a funny cartoon with her and laugh, and hopefully she will see that she is allowed to laugh, too, and that laughing isn't 'us vs. them' mean spirited but just something someone does when they're happy.

Maybe you can join her in her happiness. Is she skipping? Dancing? Yay! Happy dance fun time! Celebrate with her. Smile.

If you catch yourself laughing at her (and it is; kids are very perceptive about these things, she could tell if you're happy for her), apologize to her. Justifying it won't make any sense, she just needs to hear that she expressed hurt feelings and you respected it.

Imagine she is an adult friend you respect, and respond like that.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:34 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Same here. I told mine, "When I laugh at something you do, it's because you made me so happy that I can't keep it inside, and when happiness comes out, sometimes it sounds like laughing."
posted by disconnect at 10:59 AM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a great time to model and teach articulating emotions. As you're reading stories, discuss the characters emotions. (That boy is sad. Why is he sad? He's sad because his ice cream fell on the ground.) Narrate as you go about your daily life. (I am frustrated because there is too much traffic today!) Encourage her to name her emotions as well. (It looks like you're mad because you don't want to take a bath. Are you mad?)

Work the above into these interactions where she gets sensitive about laughing. Don't laugh. Practice smiling gently and saying "It looks like you're having fun, and that makes me SO HAPPY." If that goes ok, work it up to a smile and a soft chuckle as you're saying the words. Gauge her reaction. If she gets upset, apologize with an "Oh no. I laughed, and you got sad. I'm sorry for making you sad." This will also be a good time for her to learn to accept apologies gracefully.

Afterwards, you can summarize for her. "I laughed, and you got sad. Then I apologized, and we were oooo-kay."

I've been doing this kind of thing at home for a couple of years now, and it's really paid dividends. My son is now pretty emotionally articulate, and when you're trying to teach a kid to manage an outburst, it's really useful if they can tell you what they're feeling and why. (Sometimes it's a totally outrageous reason, but at least you can address the actual problem. Addressing the wrong problem invariably makes kids angrier.)

(Also, St. Peepsburg and emilyw are right that you are too laughing at her, and she's perceptive enough to know it. You don't mean any harm, but it seems that she disagrees.)
posted by telepanda at 11:03 AM on August 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I am a big laugher and every now and then I hurt a little kid's feelings. I usually say, "I wasn't laughing at you; I laugh when I'm happy, so I was laughing because I like being with you so much." Also effective with kids that age, "You know how sometimes when you're sad you cry even if you didn't hurt yourself? Well sometimes when I'm happy I laugh even if nobody did anything funny. It's just my way of being extra happy." But yeah, I go with the "extra-big smile" explanation of laughing.

(Most kids who know me do get used to it, when they see I'm not BS-ing them and that I'm laughing at everything happy, not just them.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:40 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this was me as a kid. It didn't matter if I was silly or serious, or what the intention of the person reacting to me was. I was just hypersensitive and it drove adults up the wall. "Stop being so sensitive!" was the soundtrack of my childhood and I became pretty withdrawn in response. I've unpacked a lot of this over the years, some through simple growth and maturity, but some through conscious and painful work. These days I can react "normally" when someone makes a teasing, benign comment or whatever, but the initial sting, while diminished and recognized for what it is, is still there. Therefore, imagine me saying this in the kindest way possible: give your kid a break and stop laughing at her. Realize that this may be something where she can't articulate why she reacts this way or control. It could be more of a sensory issue than a lack of emotional maturity. A possibly helpful book: The Highly Sensitive Person.
posted by fairfax at 11:41 AM on August 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding emilyw. I can remember, as a little kid, being deeply mortified by this (independent of whether I was being serious or happy). Because I wasn't *trying* to be cute for someone, I was just being me, and I would have appreciated if they had reacted as themselves in response, instead of making the interaction all about me and the way I said/did something. Can you join in with whatever she's doing? Can you say, "Yay!" or "Woohoo!" instead? Can you react like it's a conversation with her, rather than an evaluation of her?
posted by unknowncommand at 12:35 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It takes her out of the fun moment she was having, and makes her feel bad about herself.

Like, instead of watching her have a fun moment and laughing, try to have a fun (not *funny* but fun) moment with her.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:59 PM on August 29, 2014

My son does this as well -- he's 5 now, and we noticed it for the first time when he was around 3 years old and started preschool. For the first couple of months, he would report that the teachers were "laughing at him," and it seemed to trigger feelings of shame and embarrassment. My guess is that some kids are just like this, and rather than restricting your own impulse to laugh, I would (as others have suggested above), "narrate" the feelings you are having as you express your feelings of joy.

The other thing I have done to try to help my son is to share aloud times that I felt silly or embarrassed, and then kind of "narrate" my lightening-up thought process (in the moment, if possible). For example, "I felt silly when I left the store without my groceries! I felt really embarrassed when I had to go back in to get them, but then I realized that no one had really noticed -- and, even if they did, it really wasn't a big deal. That's a mistake anyone could make who was having a busy day like this one has been."
posted by dreamphone at 1:01 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

My son was a little sensitive in the same way when he was that little (he's almost 17 now). I would try to explain as you did that we laughed because he made us happy and delighted. He didn't really get it. Finally, once when we were playing with some kittens and laughing at their antics, I used that to get him to understand why (usually) grownups would laugh when he was cute. I pointed out that he was laughing at the kittens, but that he wasn't making fun of them, but just because they were so wonderful and cute and happy-making. He got it.
posted by primate moon at 4:02 PM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

One time when I was a little girl I had occasion to use the kitchen broom, and then struggled to put it away in the broom closet without having it fall out and hit me. So I shut the door on it and put up a sign, "Beware the voilent broom" (sic). My feelings were hurt when my mother found this mis-spelled note hilarious, but on opening the closet door she too was struck on the head. I have rarely felt so vindicated, before or since!

TL:DR In short, I'm with the kid.
posted by Coaticass at 7:18 PM on August 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

I was absolutely like this -- I had a hard time understanding the "laughing with you not at you" thing when it absolutely felt like people were laughing at me. But I was also a shy, sensitive little kid and I think it was mostly the attention that bothered me. I was just being myself and not trying to make a joke so I didn't understand why they'd be laughing.

I don't really know what changed -- I just grew out of it and began to understand the nuances of humor and why people laugh (I think it was probably before the age of 5 or 6). I think it's really sweet you're concerned about this and she does sound absolutely wonderful. I also think being sensitive can be a gift. But I do think talking to her about your emotions and encouraging her to express hers is a good thing. I would stop referring to things she does as "jokes" and move more toward the "we're laughing because we're happy" idea, as others have recommended.
posted by darksong at 8:24 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Obviously, your daughter is adorable. Seeing her happy makes you happy! So you laugh. That's natural, and we all know it is not mean-spirited or hurtful in any way. But your daughter doesn't know this, and I wonder why that is. She's obviously loved and safe and secure and all that, but still she's reacting to this laughter by being very upset.

So I think the question you might want to ask yourself is why she associates this happy laughter with being mocked or made fun of, which is what is upsetting and hurtful for her.

Respectfully, telling her that it is just a joke is, well, maybe not the best way to deal with this, since she is demonstrating to you that she already knows that jokes can be made at another's expense.

So maybe you might want to just be really be mindful of how you and others are behaving around her as well as when you're all directly interacting with her. Kids pick up on subtle social cues more than we realize.

Do your friends poke fun at each other and laugh? That laughter, coupled with those little negative digs, may sound mean to her (rather than the good-natured ribbing it is). And just that easily, your daughter has discovered that Laughter Is A Bad Thing.

Maybe you and your partner mock friends-of-friends when they are not around, after an evening out, where your daughter overhears you laughing about how ridiculous they are. Maybe other kids, if she is around any, laughed at a friend in the group. Or maybe your daughter picked this,lesson up somewhere else, like books or games or shows--could be anywhere, really!

So if you can, maybe try to watch through her eyes a little, see where this sense that Laughter is A Bad Thng is coming from in the first place. If you see negative examples, view them as teachable moments, where you can step in and change that perception for the better.

And definitely let her know that there are many reasons people laugh, including joyful laughing that comes from love and seeing the ones you love enjoying themselves and having fun (and being adorable!), not just mocking laughter at the expense of other's feelings.
posted by misha at 9:55 PM on August 29, 2014

Lots of really great advice - thank you to all who responded. I am going to try many of these.

I am so so happy to hear from others who were either like this as children, or have had children like this, who grew out of it. I guess it is just a stage she will eventually outgrow. She is a sensitive child, and I think it is a good thing overall. I love her just the way she is... I just don't want her to feel pain every time someone is experiencing happiness with her!

I don't think that she experiences mocking laughter elsewhere in her life, and she definitely doesn't experience it at home. However, as misha noted above, she could have picked it up anywhere - from a cartoon, etc. She is already very interested in emotions... she narrates little stories about characters' or stuffed animals' emotions, and we encourage her to tell us how she is feeling. (After she recovers from a tantrum now, she proudly declares "I'm feeling calm!")

I think that some people are making mistaken assumptions in their responses... we DO stop laughing when she asks us to (I'm sorry if that wasn't clear in the question), and we never laugh when she makes a mistake or is trying to sound serious. (Why would we do that?) It's more of a spontaneous thing, and we have really reduced it ourselves since we know it makes her sensitive. However, there are many situations we can't control, such as when strangers laugh when she is running around being cute. I was more looking for ways to handle those situations.
posted by barnoley at 11:03 AM on August 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Part of it is probably just being three. Kids that age feel EVERYTHING in a big way. Operatic! I think you're being a great parent, thoughtful and loving as you help your little one learn to navigate all those big feelings.
posted by Sublimity at 2:08 PM on August 30, 2014

Actually, I have caught myself laughing at my kid when she was superserious because come on! The stuff that comes out of her mouth! It's freaking hilarious. So if you've managed to avoid that, you're a step ahead of me. I'm taking your question as a nudge to be a better parent to my own kid, and am glad you asked it.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:16 PM on August 30, 2014

I would like to just add to misha's comment that children sometimes misinterpret the world around them in bizarre and inexplicable ways, so a little detective work to figure out where she's coming from could be really useful.

For example, if she's verbal enough to explain, try asking her "What's a joke?" If she can answer that, you might get some insight.

True example of how batshit crazy kids can be: When I was a kid, my parents were well off, but frugal in day-to-day matters. They taught me to save money where possible. So, in 8th grade, when I went to a month long summer program in China, I did not call home one single time, because the only phone option was to make a collect call, collect calls are expensive, and I wanted to save them money. There is no telling how many years that summer took off my mother's life.

Last thing: In the right kind of situation, and if it's really a passing stranger, you might be able to divert sad feelings by banding together with her against the stranger. As an example from home, when the bedtime timer goes off, and my son is starting to get agitated, I say something like, "You are mad that the clock says you have to go to bed! We are having fun reading stories! I am mad at the clock too. Clock, we are mad at you." Then he says something like, "Yeah! CLOCK, WE ARE MAD AT YOU." And settles right down.

If you can do something similar and establish that you guys are in this together, then you have a really good opening to slip in lessons discussed above, like, too much happy comes out as laughter sometimes.
posted by telepanda at 12:19 PM on September 2, 2014

« Older How to resize a photo without compressing image?   |   What to write (and if to write) in a thank-you... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.