When Joking Isn’t Funny

“You’re too sensitive.”

“Chill out.”

“Can’t you take a joke?”



If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of these comments, you know it can make you feel even worse than the joke that was just made at your expense.


When kids become the butt of family jokes, it can hurt.


My dad used to tease me in the name of humor. He and my older sister would share a laugh, while I felt mocked, humiliated, and left out of their fun. Mainly, he used sarcasm to bring attention to my shortcomings or highlight mistakes I’d made. I doubt he ever meant to offend me, but he certainly seemed unaware of the effect his jokes had on me and my self-esteem.


I finally found the courage to stand up for myself (at the age of 22) and say, “Stop making me the target of your jokes. It hurts my feelings.” Instead of taking responsibility and apologizing to me, as I hoped he would, my dad got defensive and told me to “lighten up.”


That was almost 18 years ago, and we have a great relationship now, in part because I realize that his behavior had more to do with him than it did with me. I’ve grown to understand that people sometimes use sarcasm as a passive-aggressive style of communication, or because they experienced contempt in their own childhoods. So ultimately, I did lighten up and stopped taking his jokes personally.


But as a kid, I didn’t have the capacity to think beyond my own hurt feelings.


Even now, my dad’s teasing still sometimes stings, but over time, I’ve developed a much better ability to laugh at myself. Plus, I’m not afraid to dish it back to him so we can have a laugh together at his expense once in a while.



The point is that, like me, some kids are sensitive. Rather than teaching them to “toughen up” or “brush it off,” adjust your humor in a way that shows respect for them.


There are enough bullies and meanies out there to contend with — kids shouldn’t have to protect themselves from their own parents, too.


When jokes are truly funny, everyone laughs. Notice your child’s response. If you say or do something light-heartedly and then realize it wasn’t received that way, make a genuine apology.


Marissa often jokes about her own distractibility, but there are times when teasing her about it would be mean instead of funny (like if she hurt herself because she was preoccupied). Dalia is less likely to laugh at herself. She can be quick to anger when she feels teased, so I’m more conscious about taking her seriously.


It can also be insensitive to talk to your friends and family about things your child does in front of your child. Kids say and do things that amuse adults all the time, but they don’t always intend to be amusing. When you joke or laugh with someone else in the presence of your child about something he said to you in all seriousness, you may embarrass him — or worse — betray his trust in you.


Keep a notebook for writing down all the witty and profound things he says and does, so he can enjoy reading about them when he’s older, and delight in them with others privately. If you want to raise kids who can laugh at themselves, the best thing to do is to model it for them. Laugh at yourself when you goof up and make yourself the target of your own jokes.


This April Fools’ Day, don’t be a fool. Don’t frighten, humiliate, or hurt your children. Use humor to connect with them instead, and create funny, lasting family memories.


On that note — if you’ve got any funny April Fools’ stories, please share them in the comments below.


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Showing 7 comments
  • Kelly - Project Me

    This is a great reminder that we need to be aware of when we’re trying to be funny, but could actually be hurting.

    My husband has been affectionately calling our niece ‘monkey face’ for a few years and jokes about giving her bananas and we started sending her birthday cards with monkey’s on them. Nobody knew it was bothering her until last Christmas when she burst into tears when we gave her a monkey motif t-shirt. She finally admitted she didn’t like it and thought we literally thought she had a (ugly) monkey face.

    We’ve stopped the nickname and all references to monkeys!

  • Tatyana

    What a great reminder. As my baby grows older, I’ll have to remember that what he does that might be amusing to us is not a reason to poke jokes at him.

  • Robin Chellis

    Nice post Pam with valuable points to remember. Our sensitive kids often take things much more seriously than our light intentions and so its important to remind ourselves that they don’t always see things as funny in the moment. I like the idea of writing these cute, funny moments in a book for everyone to read at a later age when it will be more appreciated.

    • Pam Howard

      Definitely, Robin. Kids love to hear stories about when they were younger, so you can share some of the funny moments with them then…

  • Clare Greig

    This is a great emotionally intelligent post Pam. My husbands family have a real – “joking all the time” sense of humour and like you I do give it back and stay light hearted about it but I definitely think we have to be aware of the “line”. I like your idea about “if no -one is laughing then it’s just not funny. That’s the decider. It’s simple.
    Thanks for another great post.

  • Helen Butler

    Pam, I am reading ‘Highly Sensitive Child’ at the moment after reading ‘Highly Sensitive Person’. I am the latter and our son is the former so these books are helping me understand us both better – and ‘re-parent’ myself a little as well.

    I used to think being highly sensitive was a negative trait but I don’t anymore. I think it’s a wonderful trait that gives us more insight into what’s going on around us that non-sensitive people miss.

    I think all of our children are precious and should never be laughed at. But maybe some of that comes from my upbringing as well? 🙂

    • Pam Howard

      Oh, Helen – you always have such great resources to share. I’ll have to look for those books the next time I’m at the library. Thank you!

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