People who regularly use humor as a defense mechanism usually had these 6 childhood experiences

Humor is a great way to let loose and release some stress with friends, right? But it’s much more than that. It helps to deflect attention off vulnerabilities we don’t want to face, it allows us to seem more likable with social groups and it helps tough situations feel more bearable. 

These are all examples of how people use humor as a defense mechanism throughout adult life.

The thing is: people don’t just wake up one day as adults and start using humor as a way to protect themselves, this habit is usually born out of necessity as a child. That’s why quite often people who use humor as a defense mechanism as adults, share similar experiences as kids. 

Today we’re exploring 6 childhood experiences that lead to using humor as a defense mechanism in adulthood. Sometimes you won’t even realize you’re doing it so let’s see how many of these childhood experiences resonate with you. 

1) They were criticized a lot

You know how some people use self-deprecating humor to make their friends laugh? They’re always the butt of their own jokes and don’t seem to mind people laughing at them.

When you think about it, it’s pretty clever. By poking fun at themselves, they’re taking control of the situation. Nobody else has the power to embarrass or humiliate them because they’ve already said what they think everyone is thinking. 

In 2019, during a bit about ‘fat shaming’ comedian and talk show host James Corden said “I’ve been on and off diets my whole life and this is how it’s going” gesturing to himself and his overweight physique. It’s an example of using humor to disarm others who might criticize him.

But where does this come from? 

Very often, people who use humor as a defense mechanism like this faced a lot of criticism growing up sometimes from family, schoolyard bullies, or even friends. They learned that they could use humor to soften the blow and protect themselves from criticism just a little bit. 

2) They struggled to fit in with other kids

It’s tough being a kid, right? Especially if you’re not one of the popular ones. 

Kids can be pretty cruel, they’ll find any reason they can to make fun of each other. 

Some kids figure out that humor can help them to fit in and save them from schoolyard bullies. They use it as a strategy to gain favor with the more popular kids and attract new friends.

Studies show that as kids become teenagers, they start using jokes and humor to deal with hard times. They use it not just to feel better themselves but also to tease others, showing that making jokes can be a way to blend in with friends, even if it means picking on someone else. 

As those kids grow up, they continue to use humor as a defense mechanism for stressful and uncertain situations into adulthood.

3) They grew up with a lot of conflict

Ever been in one of those situations where you could cut the tension with a knife? Then someone finally cracks a joke to lighten the mood and everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. 

People who regularly use humor as a defense mechanism are no strangers to tense situations and conflict. Very often, they grew up surrounded by it and learned to use humor to ease tension.

My cousin Annabel dealt with a lot of tension and conflict as a kid. Her parents went through a messy divorce when she was 11 years old and she was sometimes caught in the middle. 

She openly admits that she used humor as a way to ease tension and make her little brother laugh when things were really bad. At this stage, it’s like humor is part of her DNA, she still uses it as a defense mechanism regularly. 

If you know someone like Annabel who regularly uses jokes to shield themselves from conflict, there’s a good chance it’s a strategy they developed in childhood to cope with tense times at home.  

4) They didn’t feel safe expressing their emotions growing up

Many people who use jokes to protect themselves in adulthood, do it because they never learned to express their true feelings as kids. They didn’t grow up in an environment where it was safe to say how they really felt.  

The thing is: expressing emotions is a vital part of being human. “Humans are not designed to ignore emotional information, as emotional information is among the most important signals our body sends us” notes licensed therapist Jason N. Linder PsyD.

For children who didn’t feel safe openly expressing their emotions, they had no choice but to find other ways to express themselves. And one of those ways was through humor. 

“Humor is also a way to say what you really feel without having to completely commit to it” notes Phil Stark AMFT, jokes “are a way to say how you feel without admitting how you feel.”

If you know anyone who hides behind jokes as a way to say how they really feel, chances are they learned this habit during their childhood when they couldn’t express themselves honestly.

5) They were clever and understimulated

Did you know that humor and intelligence in kids are linked? 

A recent study found that kids who scored well on IQ testing were funnier and more quick-witted than their peers with lower IQ scores. 

When clever kids don’t have a way to channel their intelligence, they quickly learn how to use humor as a defense mechanism and to get what they want. 

If you know someone who’s always witty and quick with clever remarks, it’s a sure sign that they were smarter than the average kid their age, and didn’t have enough challenge to engage their clever brains. 

They’ve maintained this habit throughout their lives, turning to clever quips and jokes as a way to defend themselves in adulthood. 

6) They’re part of a big family

All kids will go to great lengths to get the attention of their parents, right? And when you’re a kid growing up as part of a big family with lots of brothers and sisters, competition for attention is fierce. 

Some kids learn to use humor as a way to stand out from their siblings and become the center of attention. And once they develop the habit of using humor to fulfill a need as a kid, that habit stays with them into adulthood. 

I’ve seen this firsthand with my friend, Nick. He’s one of seven children and he had to compete with his siblings big time to get any attention as a kid. At some point, Nick developed his dry, sarcastic sense of humor to help him get the attention he craved as a kid. 

And the funny thing is: he still uses humor to get attention as an adult. It’s like his little safety blanket, whenever he needs a little validation, he becomes the funniest guy in the room. And he’s not the only one, lots of kids from big families use humor as a strategy in adulthood. 

Final thoughts

Humor is incredibly powerful, it can be used as a defense mechanism in so many different ways. 

Whether someone wants to soften the blow of criticism, express their emotions safely, or get the validation and attention they need, it can all be done through humor. Often, those who often joke to protect themselves started doing this as kids.

Here’s the kicker: you don’t have to hide behind humor anymore. As an adult, you can work with a professional to face things head-on and work through your childhood experiences so that you can enjoy humor for humor’s sake and stop using it as a way to protect yourself. 

Cat Harper

Cat is an experienced Sales and Enablement professional turned writer whose passions span from psychology and relationships to continuous self-improvement, lifelong learning and pushing back on societal expectations to forge a life she loves. An avid traveler and adventure sports enthusiast, in her downtime you'll find Cat snowboarding, motorcycling or working on her latest self-development project.

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