Class Clown? Humor could be coping strategy for middle school


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Q: My middle-school child has become the class clown. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to know where the boundaries are. Is this a sign he is not getting enough attention at home, or is this the only way he can relate to others at school?

A: Middle school is a tough time. Do you remember it? I do. I wore big glasses, weighed at least 10 pounds more than I wanted and knew for certain my clothes were always behind the latest fashion no matter how hard I tried to keep up with everyone. We all found our own ways to cope with the awkwardness. Mine was to study a lot and lay low.

Your son may be taking a different road. He is choosing to use humor as his coping strategy and that can work well, within reason. As long as he is not making fun of his classmates or his teachers and is not a disruption during class, his sense of humor might be a welcome relief for the long sessions of sitting, listening and working. You stated that he is having difficulty with boundaries, so I will assume that there have been some negative consequences to your son’s use of humor in the classroom.

Increasing the attention he gets at home may help with the problem, but it will be more important for you to discern the type of attention he needs most — educational, social or emotional. Start by asking your child how he is doing in school. Ask his teachers if he is falling behind in his work or having difficulty with the material. Children sometimes use humor to hide the fact that they don’t understand what is being said or feel inadequate to respond to questions they are being asked. It may be just the opposite. Your son may be ahead academically and not being challenged by the level or way the material is being taught. He may be using humor as a distraction from boredom. In either situation it would be wise to find out about his academic performance and how clowning around affects it.

Next, ask your child about bullying. Does he get teased at school, or is he being targeted for negative comments or name-calling? The cruel and often unexpected nature of bullying can cause some children to move into a “class clown role” where they try to gain control over the focus and timing of the teasing by using humor on their terms. The classroom is a more “public” means to embarrass a classmate and can function as a safety net to get a message across in a more neutral setting than in a one-on-one situation.

Your son may also seek attention in class due to low self-esteem. Ask him questions about how he sees himself. The humor may be self-critical in nature, and he may be trying to poke fun at himself in an attempt to beat others to the punch line. Pay attention to how he talks about himself in daily conversation. Does he put himself down or minimize his accomplishments? You can use this opportunity to let him know how you see him. Remind him of all the positive character traits that make him special and wonderful to you as his parent. Help him understand that humor is fine as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or their ideas. Discourage degrading comments, including those aimed at himself.

Finally, remind your son that he should respect those around him. That includes his behavior at school. Encourage him to find ways to help in the classroom and be a good friend to others. His investment of time for his teachers and concern for his peers will only improve his self-esteem in the long run.

Susan Michels works with children and adolescents at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Please submit your questions to Is My Kid OK? by emailing sherri.mcmillen@conehealth.com.

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