Silly - Clowning

"Don't be such a clown. You always act so silly." These statements are frequently made by adults to children who appear to be foolish and lacking in common sense. These children often act like jokesters or, at the extreme, like buffoons. Some children act silly in an apparently nonvoluntary manner. They behavior is frequently silly, regardless of the social context or the consequences. They often appear foolish to peers, relatives, and teachers. The negative responses of others do not diminish the frequency of the silly behavior. Other children appear to go into their act, which seems like a purposeful attempt to behave like a clown. Silliness decreases as the child gets older. However, silliness can become a habit and then appear to be "part of a child's personality." Even as a teenager and adult, the individual may retain his jokester or clown image. For some, it may be their main way of relating to others.

There are no statistics as to the number of children who act relatively silly at various ages. Also, there are no estimates as to what percentage of time a child must act foolishly before such action is considered a problem. Additionally silliness must be differentiated from general immaturity. Immature children usually lag behind their peers in a variety of behaviors, often appearing physically immature. Here we are considering specific social behaviors that make these children appear foolish and clownlike. Even more than with other behaviors, parental tolerance is a key factor. Some parents do not view frequent giggling, face making, noises, and joking as inappropriate in children under 10 years. Other parents have very little tolerance and label minimum amounts of these behaviors as silly and unacceptable. The concern about silliness therefore becomes a combination of the amount of the child's behavior and the parents' attitude and tolerance. A helpful indicator is peer and teacher reaction. A silly reputation with peers, who then tease or ostracize the child, indicates a problem. teachers' judgments of relative silliness and unpopularity is another sign of difficulty.

Reasons Why

Seek Attention
Being silly or acting like a clown results in attention from others. Many children feel negatively about themselves but feel worthwhile when they obtain attention. For many children positive or negative attention is rewarding. Some parents enjoy clownlike behavior and activity praise, smile, or in other ways reward that behavior. Reinforced behavior is repeated and can become habitual. Some parents overreact and show very strong negative or punitive reaction to clowning. Unfortunately, negative attention can serve to reinforce the behavior. And some children clown more to gain revenge against the punitive parent. However, children who seek and crave attention repeat the behavior that gains attention and causes a strong parental reaction. Also, peer influence is very powerful. Frequently, peers encourage or even provoke a child to act foolishly. Positive or very negative peer reaction can reinforce clowning in the lonely child who is desperate for attention.

Habitual Silliness or Never Learned Appropriate Humor
Silliness is typical in young children and is contagious when peers act silly. For some children silliness can continue as a habit which is not given up for more appropriate humor. Appropriate attention-getting methods and more acceptable humor may literally never have been learned. These children may believe that the only way to be noticed is to be laughed at. Similarly, they may feel that the only way to be humorous is to be a clown.

Divert Attention
Some children act foolishly to divert attention away from their own problems. Therefore, people won't notice their perceived inadequacies but will only see the clowning. Other children may be diverting attention away from a sibling or even be defusing a tense parental relationship. The clowning brother may be protecting his vulnerable sister by focusing attention on himself. The child who (accurately or inaccurately) thinks his parents might hurt each other psychologically or physically may offer himself as comic relief. Instead of the parents to stop him from behaving so foolishly.

How to Prevent
  • Model and Teach Appropriate Humor
  • Demonstrate Attention Giving and Getting
What to Do
  • Analyze Cause and Take Action
  • Reinforce Humor and a Child's Strengths and Ignore Silliness

Case Report

Two girls, ages 9 and 13, were always giggling, pushing each other, and making foolish faces at home. In school and with peers, they had a reputation of clowning and frequently acting in a silly manner. The parents communicated to the girls that their behavior was annoying and immature and was leading to a bad reputation and social isolation. The parents had frequently tried punishing silliness with no success. One family interview clearly revealed a tense marital relationship and many differences of opinion between the parents as to handling the girls. The girls appeared desperate for attention and frequently clowned just when the parents were expressing sadness or anger. Two counseling sessions were held only with the parents. The girls' behavior was explained in terms of diverting attention away from the parents' negative interaction, as well as their seeking positive attention. A plan was agreed upon for the parents to express more positive feelings in general and to argue less with each other. Additionally, they were specifically to provide more attention and praise to the girls together and also to spend some time with each of the alone.

The combined approach was immediately successful in lessening silly behavior at home. However, it was several months before clowning in school and with peers diminished noticeably. A follow-up interview was held 6 months later. The parents reported that the girls were more receptive to discussing their behavior at home. It was a slow process of their realizing the negative consequences of clowning and the more appropriate ways of gaining attention and making friends. A key ingredient was the improved communication between parents and children brought about the diminished parental strife and increase in their positive attention to the children.
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