Q: Our 4-year-old daughter has a huge problem with being laughed at. She loves to be goofy and do funny things but as soon as someone, including one of us, laughs at her she becomes upset. She will say "Don't laugh!" or "I don't want you to laugh at me!" We explain that we aren't laughing at her but at the funny things she does. We’ve also told her that we laugh because we are happy and having a good time with her. Is there a different way to explain this to her so that she will understand that we aren't trying to be mean or tease her in anyway?
A: Maybe. First, however, some background: A child’s social personality is forming at this age. As such, it’s not unusual for a 3- or 4-year-old to be somewhat “conflicted” when it comes to personality traits like introversion versus extroversion. Some 4-year-olds, for example, are very self-conscious and therefore easily embarrassed when people pay attention to things they’re doing. Others are hams and love to perform and make people laugh. It sounds to me like your daughter is caught betwixt and between these two opposing traits, as if she can’t make up her mind whether she wants to be a comedian or not. If you only continue to muddle through these upsets as you’re doing — and you’re actually doing fine — this little bump in the road will smooth itself out within a year or two. There may be, however, some things you can do to hurry the process along.
Obviously, trying to explain your laughter after she’s become upset is not working; therefore, I recommend that you be more proactive. I call the approach I’m going to describe “Striking While the Iron is Cold” — in other words, deal with the problem or issue when it’s not taking place and hasn’t for a while.
Sit down with her at a time when the home has been calm for a while and this particular issue hasn’t happened for a day or more. Tell her that you want to talk about her reaction to people who laugh when she does funny things. To help her understand that the laughter is not personal, point out times when she has laughed when someone else, even a character on one of her favorite television shows, has done something funny. Then, ask her what she wants you (and other people) to do when she does something funny, as in, “Do you want us to laugh or clap or do you just want us to sit there and not even look at you, like this?” (Make a ludicrously serious face to help make the point.)
Try to get across to her that the alternative to laughing is not natural. Point out, for example, that it would be strange if her favorite television character did something funny and no one laughed. By discussing several alternatives to laughing, you will draw her into the problem-solving process. She may begin to see that laughter is what she actually is looking for.
My experience is that a conversation of this sort will begin to bring about resolution, although you might have to have several more like it before it finally sets in.