Do People Laugh Out of Fear? (Revealed)


It may seem illogical but people really do sometimes laugh out of fear and this is especially common in young children for a variety of reasons. Let’s look into what this means, when kids (and adults) laugh out of fear and what parents, grandparents, teachers and others can do about it.

People, adults and kids alike, laugh out of fear for a variety of reasons like self-preservation or anxiety. Whether fear stems from embarrassment, the unknown, physical pain, or something else, it is not uncommon to laugh in response even if it is more reasonable to cry, scream, or lash out.

In this article, I’ll share with you my personal and professional experience dealing with this somewhat paradoxical response, what I’ve learned about it, and what I think can help you in similar situations particularly as it relates to kids.

Why Do Kids Laugh When Scared?

First, let’s look at why kids laugh when scared or afraid when normally it seems a complete opposite response makes more sense.

Kids laugh when scared even if that doesn’t make sense to other kids or adults around at the time. Sometimes kids laugh as a pretense to hide fear; whereas other times children laugh, despite fear, out of relief or uncertainty of the present situation or incident.

Dr. Rothbart in Psychological Bulletin was one of the first to explain children’s laughter as a response signaling an acceptable or tolerance of a situation. Upon further clarification, Rothbart said laughter is an emotional reaction to a heightened situation, even one of fear or tension, once the situation is deemed inconsequential.

One way to build humor with your kids is to use it strategically through routines or regular activities. For instance, our Fun Jokes For Kids Coloring Book is a great tool for embedding humor through kid-friendly activity.

This seems contradictory, to say the least. Most parents, grandparents, teachers, etcetera, are happy to see and hear children laugh because it is assumed it’s a response to a pleasant occurrence. To find out, according to Dr. Rothbart and other specialists, that this might not be the case, is concerning.

I mean, how can you know the difference and what is an acceptable way to handle this? Let’s look at some specific instances where kids might laugh from fear and how to respond. Then, it should become more understandable.

Little Kids Laugh and Cry At Peek-A-Boo

Infants often go through a range of emotions when playing peek-a-boo because they aren’t quite sure if the game is fun or scary.

One of the first games parents often play with their kids is peek-a-boo. In fact, it’s tightly connected to a milestone accomplishment called object permanence, which occurs in infants around 6 months old.

Object permanence: when children are able to understand that objects don’t disappear even if they can’t see them or the objects are covered or hidden.

Source: Renowned Psychologist, Jean Piaget

Infants enjoy the game peek-a-boo because it involves up close and personal attention, which at this stage in their lives they crave for security and comfort. As well, infants like the sudden burst of ‘boo’ from their adult playing with them, giving them an easy thrill.

Peek-a-boo is a natural first game to play, too, for parents and babies since it doesn’t cost anything; require special equipment or materials; can be played anywhere; and doesn’t take a lot of effort or time from players. It’s also beneficial in that it facilitates parent-child bonding; helps cognitive learning with patterns and as stated before, object permanence for infants; and teaches children social skills like smiling, waiting, taking turns, and routines.

However, just as peek-a-boo is fun for kids; it’s also a thrilling experience that can cause fear just as commonly. So how does it do this?

First, there’s the ‘hiding’ part, whether it’s a stuffed animal behind a pillow or a parent covering his face. This in itself can cause a bit of fear from an infant, especially if he or she hasn’t attained object permanence yet. But even if they have, the ‘taking away’ of something can instigate fear, too.

The next part of peek-a-boo that can cause fear is the ‘boo’ part. Saying ‘boo’ loudly, suddenly, or excitedly can cause fear in infants and toddlers. And despite the fear, you’ll usually find that they’ll respond with laughter (and maybe some tears alongside too!).

Nevertheless, don’t let this stop you from playing peek-a-boo with your child or grandchild! As already explained, the benefits make it a worthwhile game and therefore, shouldn’t be avoided.

Yet when you do play peek-a-boo, here are a few tips you might want to keep in mind:

  • Only play with infants or toddlers you know well (for instance, your children and grandchildren) and have established a trusting relationship.
  • Don’t overdo it. Keep peek-a-boo short in duration.
  • It’s also helpful to make it part of a routine like playing together once a day in the evening or when your child first wakes from a nap.
  • Watch for signs of overstimulation such as twitching, crying, whining, or getting too loud. If this happens, respond with assurances to build trust and pauses (or stop the game) to alleviate fear.

Kids Laugh When Afraid Of Jack In The Box

Kids have a love/hate relationship with the Jack in the Box toy- anticipating the ‘pop’ of Jack can bring about both laughs and tears.

Another seemingly fun thing that can cause fear is the Jack in the Box toy. Jack in the Box was first developed in the 1500s by a German clock maker and has been popularized by toy makers ever since.

The toy consists of a box, usually metal or more likely plastic today, with a lever which plays music when turned. Pop Goes the Weasel is the most common tune for a Jack in the Box, but there’s variety with the music selection, depending upon the Jack in the Box theme.

Upon a certain point in the song, a character from inside the box pops out. This uncertainty of when the character will ‘pop’ is what causes both the fear and laughter in children.

The most common Jack in the Box character has been a clown but over the years, this has changed according to popular toys and books. Curious George Jack in the Box is the best selling variety on Amazon currently, but I’ve seen Peter Rabbit, Paddington Bear, Mickey Mouse, and even Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer versions, too.

Parents et al should understand that part of the thrill of the Jack in the Box is the uncertainty factor, the anticipation of the ‘pop.’ And that of course, is the reason for the fear associated. And so, even though children are laughing when playing with a Jack in the Box, there’s going to be some connection to fear.

How can parents utilize a Jack in the Box appropriately with their kids?

  1. First, introduce it to your child. Explain the object of the toy and take them through the process slowly and together.
  2. Next, talk about what’s happening.
  3. Model the interaction with the Jack in the Box that you expect from your child, demonstrating to them what’s appropriate and that even though it’s ‘thrilling’, there’s really nothing to be afraid of.
  4. Offer the toy to your child to ‘work’ while you are with him or her, so they feel comfortable.
  5. Enjoy the play time together, making it a fun and routine experience.
  6. Watch your child; if he or she is too excitable or fearful, perhaps wait to use the Jack in the Box in a few months.

Big Kids Laugh When Playing Surprise Games (Boo!)

Another game that often brings about fear and laughter is surprise or ‘boo!’ games, often played by bigger kids, aged 8-12 years old.

Boo-type games are really more of a collection of games like tag, hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, and simply, jump scares that involve chasing, catching, and screaming. Foundational to these games is someone jumping out at you and screaming, ‘boo’, ‘gotcha’, or just ‘ahhh!’

For example, kids will laugh when someone jumps out at them as they come around a corner. Though they are actually afraid, or just experienced a fright from the ‘jump scare’, he or she will laugh, both from the sudden fear, but also as a relief, knowing that the fear was not anything really to be afraid of in the first place since they didn’t get hurt.

Relief theory explains why people (kids and adults alike) laugh when uncomfortable even to the point of fear. In essence we expect something to be unpleasant, and our fear response is elevated. Thus, when it turns out it’s not so unpleasant or ‘scary’, we laugh.

Source: Psychologist, Herbert Spencer

It’s not really hard, then, to understand that boo games can evoke laughter out of fear. To be clear, this is laughing more out of relief and a release of tension as much as it is out of being afraid.

To read more about kids and laughter, check out these articles:

Teachers Know Kids Laugh When Uncomfortable or Scared

As someone who’s worked in public and private schools for almost two decades, I also have specific experience with kids laughing out of fear of their teacher or some other adult in authority. This is especially true for students with disabilities or English language learners.

Teaching Example 1 I remember a time when a co-teacher was upset with an EL student (student who spoke little to no English) because he kept giggling while she confronted him over not doing homework, and then later, his ‘disrespect.’ She thought he must be able to understand her since he was responding, in her words, ‘so flippantly.’

I had to quickly intervene, making her aware that his response in no way was flippant or meant he’d suddenly grasped English. Rather, he was feeling anxious under her direct scrutiny and angry tone, especially since he had no idea why his teacher was upset with him. His fear manifested itself, illogically, with laughter (giggles).

Teaching Example 2 Another example of students laughing from fear is during presentations or speaking to a group. I frequently used projects as a learning tool and sometimes this meant students would present or share their work in front of the class. There have been several occasions where students giggled and laughed when it was their turn to talk, barely able to say a word, let alone give a speech clearly. This wasn’t because they were not serious students or ill prepared; instead, it was out of fear of speaking to a large group (i.e. nervousness and anxiety) that caused them to laugh uncontrollably.

Unfortunately, not all teachers understand this laughing response out of fear and instead they think it’s out of disrespect, insubordination, or class clown behavior. It’s important for teachers, and all adults especially, to recognize laughing as a natural and true response to fear.

Talk to your child if something like this has happened to them and make sure they aren’t unfairly punished for it.

Why Do I Laugh When I Get Hurt Or Scared?

Kids don’t just grow out of this response to fear either; sometimes it continues to manifest in adulthood, making some adults wonder, why do I laugh when I get hurt or scared?

Adults, like kids, sometimes laugh when hurt or scared out of fear. From the relief theory of humor which explains laughing after a fearful experience to laughing as a response to anxiety or to deflect attention, there are situations where adults laugh though the situation isn’t necessarily funny.

Let’s look very briefly at a few instances where seemingly fearful moments may cause adults to laugh, or where adults actually seek out fearful moments as a thrilling, fun experience.

https://youtu.be/mhoQZihuvs4
Every Fall people intentionally go to Haunted Houses or watch scary movies to be scared, because they enjoy it!

Every fall in anticipation of Halloween, haunted houses and corn mazes pop up. This is in direct response to adults’ love/hate relationship with fear.

It’s common for many adults of all ages to enjoy being scared. From ‘scary movies’ to haunted houses, it’s evident that this is true by the multimillion dollar market to make adults afraid as entertainment. In fact, often participants can be heard going from screams to laughter and back again, within minutes.

Some Laugh During Court Out of Fear

Some people, especially those who are extremely immature or lack social skills or decorum, smile or laugh from fear of the unknown or during uncomfortable situations, which is just another type of fear.

There are also many court cases involving laughter. And I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing funny to me about being in court!

Now it could very well be that in these cases the defendants laughed because they are devious and evil; or they had a disability affecting their understanding of the seriousness of charges. However, several lawyers have argued it’s because of fear of what was happening that people such as Aaron Hernandez to the Mendez brothers were caught smiling or giggling in court.

Adults May Laugh When Saying Vows Out of Scared Nervousness

Though it wasn’t rehearsed this way, sometimes brides and/or grooms laugh during the wedding vows from nervousness and pressure.

Also, like with kids, some adults laugh out of fear when nervous or anxious. There are examples of brides or grooms laughing during their wedding, or even people laughing at funerals.

Obviously, weddings and funerals aren’t laughing moments (not until the reception, at the least) but some adults have fear of speaking in front of others or fear of having attention on themselves during extremely serious moments, and they laugh in response.

Laughing Instead of Crying When In Pain

And then, there are some who laugh when in pain. For instance, our son when he gets hurt like stubbing a toe, hitting a finger with a hammer, or jamming an elbow, instead of crying or screaming, he’ll laugh out loud.

Now this doesn’t mean pain is funny. On the contrary, we all know that physical pain is far from funny.

However, he’s somehow learned that during heightened, intensity-filled moments, he’d rather laugh. It could be that it stemmed from trying to relieve tension or lower concern of others during his pain that it started out, but suffice it to say, he’s not the only one.

Some people have just conditioned themselves to laugh when in pain, and that works for them.

The Final Punchline for People Laughing Out of Fear

So to recap about laughing out of fear or from being afraid:

  • People of all ages are prone to laugh out of fear from time to time, whether adults or kids.
  • Kids often laugh out of fear in response to certain games. As they learn the games’ objective and build trust with how it works as well as with their caregivers, they are less fearful and laughing can be more of a genuine response to fun.
  • Sometimes kids laugh out of fear of unknown and uncertainty like when presenting in front of the class or with dealing with an authority figure who makes them nervous.
  • Adults, like kids, have similar reasons for laughing out of fear like during times of anxiety, nervousness, or simply out of relief after an intense moment.
  • While kids often play games that have a fear factor such as peek-a-boo, Jack in the Box toys, or games with jump scares that cause them to laugh, adults often seek out fearful activities for thrills and laughs such as scary/horror movies or haunted houses.

For further reading about kids and laughter, I highly recommend these:

Jackie Booe

A mother to four kids, grandmother ("Oma") to a growing number, a retired teacher for over 18 years, and a wife to Mat since 1994, Jackie knows kids and laughter. She holds a license to teach in 3 states and is certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners, with practical experience at all levels. She holds three degrees in the field of education and has taught education courses online at the university level as an adjunct professor, too. She has mentored numerous education interns, hosted professional development for educators, and tutored, in addition to homeschooling her own children.

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