Naughty people need love too!

“You better watch out, you better not cry! Better not pout, I’m telling you why…Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, and checking it twice; gonna find out who’s naughty and nice…Santa Claus is coming to town.” ~ J. Fred Coots, Henry Gillespie – 1934

As the holidays’ approach, I begin humming the old childhood songs as I go about my day.   This year as I listened to the words and the messages in my little-girl-mind, I realized that this was, indeed a strong message that was given to my generation.

  • Be a good girl or boy
  • It is best to be seen and not heard
  • Don’t cry!
  • Wipe that pout off your face!
  • You are naughty!
  • Be nice

But you know, as I have grown up, I have learned from the Elders that even those who are naughty need love! Sometimes we need to cry or pout, and express our anger and hurt!

The elders have taught me that

  • All human beings have basic human needs.
  • If those basic human needs are not met – we ‘act naughty’.  Some people say we have  ‘disruptive behaviors’ or we are ‘not being nice’.
  • If we recognize that ‘naughty behavior’ is merely an expression of unmet needs, we can respond with empathy to fill that need for the other person, and in doing so, give grace and connect with love and kindness instead of being annoyed.

Dr. Abraham Maslow created the hierarchy of needs in 1943, and I am teaching families and care team members to notice especially if a person living with a cognitive challenge is exhibiting what some people would consider  ‘naughty behavior’, to analyze and determine what basic human need is not met.

Maslow Hierarchy of needs

  • Is the person in pain?  (Physiological need)
  • Is the person frightened or afraid? (safety need)
  • Is the person lonely and longing for companionship? (Love and belonging need)
  • Is the person distressed at the loss of their purpose and status in life?  (Self-esteem need)

If you and I can understand the unmet need behind that ‘naughty behavior’ we can respond with empathy and help the person find peace.

Let me tell you a story of a man  living with dementia who was expressing  his unmet needs through outbursts of behavior, and how we discovered the solution to his needs utilizing Maslow’s hierarchy as a guide.

Paul is spending the entire morning walking the halls crying and calling out his wife’s name. “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly!”  A well-meaning care team member says, “Dolly went shopping, she will be back later.”  Paul begins to wail and scream her name, “Dolly, Dolly, Dolly!”   He is looking for her everywhere and is upset that he can’t find her. Another care team member recognizing his distress as an unmet need for the love of his wife says, “Paul, tell me about Dolly.  What color are her eyes?  What do you miss most about her?”   After a few minutes of expressing his love for Dolly, Paul says very quietly, “She has been gone a long time, I really miss her hugs.”      

The first well-meaning care team member told a ‘therapeutic lie.  Paul knows deep inside that Dolly did not go shopping, and his anxiety increased.  Paul is trying to communicate to someone that will listen that he misses Dolly.   When he was invited to share and release his deep feelings and heartbreak to the second care team member his unmet need for love and belonging was met – and he had peace.

  • Listening with empathy to determine the unmet need builds trustreduces anxiety and restores dignity
  • Painful feelings that are expressed and acknowledged by an empathetic listener will diminish.
  • Painful feelings that are ignored or suppressed will gain in strengthThe power of empathy to connect and to relieve pain that is pent up inside can bring peace of mind.

How many of us label or are labeled as  ‘naughty or nice’ based on our behaviors?  We are good just as we are.  It is ok to cry. It is ok to pout. We have been told since childhood to be happy, to be nice, to be a good girl or boy, and not to be naughty!  But sometimes, we are not happy, and we simply want someone there to hear us, and listen with empathy, and let us cry and release those painful feelings.  We can be the empathetic listener  for the elders we care for.  We can do this for family members, and we can do this for one another.

If you have friends or loved ones that are grumpy this holiday season… before you get annoyed at their ‘naughty behavior’  – think about it.  Are they expressing an unmet need?  Are they hungry and tired? Do they need a hug? Are they worried about money and finances? What is their unmet need?  Give them a little grace and a lot of love. Be there to listen with empathy, and support them to express their painful feelings.  You will make their day!


Jean Garboden, Director of Education & Innovation at Compass Senior Living

About the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living, located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years’ experience in not-for-profit and for-profit healthcare organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living. Jean lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she enjoys the weather and volunteers with the Nevadans for the Common Good, advocating for caregivers and elders in southern Nevada