Children can easily feel overwhelmed by other people’s emotional displays. This is especially the case if they feel responsible for the other’s negative emotions. This is often the set-up in a parent-child discipline exchange. Child misbehaves, parent feels angry, child feels responsible for parent’s anger. When children feel overwhelmed by other’s emotions, a natural defense mechanism is to get silly and play. In this moment they are trying to diffuse the situation, to distract from the anger. It tends to be a pretty poor way to diffuse, usually it tends to fail.
Let’s say your arms are full of groceries, you are trying to get the kids in the car and your four-year-old is running circles around you. Next thing, they knock groceries out of your hand. You bark, “get in the car!” Your face is red, and your voice is angry. Your child feels overwhelmed, so a natural defense mechanism kicks in, and they get silly. They laugh and run off saying, “you can’t catch me!” They are trying to change the situation, to calm things. Unfortunately it’s a very poor choice for getting to calm, being silly tends to kicks things up a notch.
The trick is to recognize the pattern for what it is. If your children get silly and play in response to your upset, at least consider they may be feeling overwhelmed and trying to diffuse your emotion. Take it as a signal to calm.