Dear Mama Drama:
My ten-year-old son is always cracking jokes and thinks he is extremely funny. The trouble is that his jokes are usually at the expense of someone else. When people respond negatively to him, he acts like they are overreacting and too sensitive.
I think he has some sharp wit beneath the rudeness, but I don’t know how to tap into it. Most of the time he comes off acting like a jerk instead of being funny.
Ten-year-old boys often use humor to engage socially and, as you relate, they don’t always understand the line between funny and rude. Children (and some adults) also use inappropriate humor to humiliate others in order to feel better about themselves or attempt to elevate their social status. This is also bullying behavior. Additionally, some children do not read social cues well and misinterpret (or miss altogether) the facial expressions and body language of others. Other children don’t understand the basic rules of friendship.
I suggest you start by spending some time assessing what may be behind your son’s behavior.
If it is related to his self-esteem and trying to elevate his social status, spend some time talking with him about how he sees himself. What are his strengths? What are his challenges? How does he think others perceive him? What words would he use to describe himself? If his responses are overwhelmingly negative or overly grandiose, help him to develop a more accurate positive self-perception and find different ways to fit in and feel good about himself.
If it is that he does not understand the line between funny and mean/rude, you’ll need to teach him this directly. Try out different jokes with each other and the family, clarifying which ones are funny and which ones aren’t and why. Watch age-appropriate comedy shows together and take note of times when that line into meanness is crossed or is right on the edge. You may even find a local acting or improv class that can help him hone his wit while losing the rudeness.
If your son truly is not reading the social cues others are giving him and understanding the rules of friendship, help him to learn these. Books, games, and role-playing are fun ways to teach feelings, how to read facial expressions and body language, and the ins and outs of friendships.
A fabulous book that can help your child see the perspective of those on the other end of the joke is Just Kidding by Tracy Ludwig. Two great resources for understanding your child’s friendship style and how to help him are The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends by Natalie Madorsky Elman, Ph.D., and Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. and Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Sometimes social and emotional issues feel beyond a parent’s skill and understanding. If this is the case, seek support from your school counselor, social worker, psychologist or an outside mental health professional.