Beyond “Naughty or Nice”: What Our Children’s Unwanted Behavior Can Teach Us

Holiday photo with list of names on "nice list" next to plate snowflake shaped cookies

“Naughty or nice?” We hear these words a lot during the holidays, especially surrounding December traditions that pivot around children’s behavior. “Santa’s List Day,” celebrated December 4, was the day for determining who’s well-behaved and who’s not, and all month long millions of children write “Dear Santa” letters, requesting toys they want along with their commentary on whether they’ve been bad or good.

When it comes to children’s behavior and the way we talk about it, the conversation is much more complex and doesn’t fall into tidy categories of “good or bad,” “right or wrong,” “naughty or nice.” This is particularly true for fostered and adopted children who have complex trauma histories.

It’s important to reframe the conversation. As WACAP’s Clinical Director Zoila Lopez reminds us in this post, unwanted behavior is immensely valuable and communicates our children’s needs.

Naughty or Nice or …Unwanted Behavior

In a perfect world, we would all be perfectly behaved. Six-year-olds wouldn’t fight putting on their shoes before school. No one would see a child throwing a temper tantrum at the grocery store. Teens wouldn’t slam the door on the way to their room. Moms and dads wouldn’t lose their patience. In this perfect world, we wouldn’t witness or engage in “bad behavior.”

When thinking about behavior, it’s beneficial for us as parents to reframe what we might call “bad” behavior as unwanted behavior. Unwanted (or dysregulated) behavior in children is the result of a poor capacity to process, accept, and manage environmental changes. The more we can recognize “bad” behavior as useful, the more capable we are to see what our child is communicating and understand how to best respond—and the better equipped we’ll be to recognize and meet our child’s needs.

Tantrums, defiant behavior, screaming, impulsivity, meltdowns, and battles for control are all examples of unwanted behaviors. Among older children, teens, and young adults, unwanted behaviors may take the form of outbursts, annoyance, mood swings, and what may come across as lack of empathy and self-centeredness. Unwanted behaviors are more frequent among children who are afflicted by complex developmental trauma. This is so because children from trauma have missed out on important attachment and developmental milestones, which results in immaturity in self-regulation of emotions and behaviors.

Behavioral challenges like those outlined above put parents’ patience to the test. Considering the environment and imagining our child’s experience is integral to understanding how to respond, and how our child needs us to respond, especially during stressful times.

Unwanted Behaviors During the Holiday Season

The holidays are a breeding ground for dysregulation. They often bring out an array of challenging behaviors in children, and it’s no wonder why. For many kids, the holidays are an assault on the senses: colorful and flashing lights, evolving store displays, loud music, crowded stores, and an assortment of smells, sounds and sights to process. With so much going on, it’s difficult for children to remain well-regulated.

Furthermore, children thrive on routines, which are often interrupted during holidays and family gatherings. Holidays bring time off from school, visiting family members, travel, extended stays at others’ homes, unfamiliar faces, and new surroundings. Children also have trouble adjusting to their parents’ busier schedules or lack of availability. The sensory extravaganza plus routine changes are difficult for children, particularly for those with a complex trauma history and for children who’ve just come home to their families. These conditions are overwhelming for adults without a history of trauma, let alone children from hard places!

Many fostered and adopted children don’t respond well in these environments—they might even regress and exhibit behaviors often present during children’s integrations to families through adoption (e.g., food issues, bed wetting, etc.). Unsurprisingly, we, as parents, become stressed, frustrated, and anxious, witnessing our children descend into what feels like a spiral into a land where dysregulation is king without much warning. We may respond from this place of stress, while our child’s behavior continues to digress … and the stress-response escalates for all parties. The parent and child responses create a closed feedback loop that can be difficult to break without taking some deliberate steps as a parent.

Responding to Your Child’s Unwanted Behavior: Strategies You Can Take

  • Pause. Stop what’s happening if possible.
  • Attune yourself in the moment to your child.
  • Count back from 10 (to yourself).
  • Use a soft voice with your child.
  • Get down to your child’s eye level.
  • Practice mindfulness – What is it about your child’s dysregulated behavior that’s causing you to respond in a dysregulated way?

Reframing the way we think about behavior—thinking about behavior as a messenger offering information about our children’s emotional state (vs. bad/good)—reminds us why even undesired behavior is so valuable. It uniquely educates us about the needs of our children, reminds us how we need to respond to those needs, and nudges us toward the empathy that we need to practice on their behalf, on good days and bad and in every season.

Additional Resources:

WACAP is committed to building strong families. Visit WACAP’s social services page to learn more about how we support foster and adoptive families.

By WACAP Clinical Director Zoila Lopez (content-theory-collaborative writer-editor) and WACAP Communications Editor M. Harrel (collaborative writer-editor).

wacap-clinical-directorAbout WACAP Clinical Director Zoila Lopez: Zoila joined WACAP in 2016 as the organization’s clinical director. She is an adoptive mom, a former foster parent, and has an extensive work background as a therapist and adoption coach, working to support all members of the adoption triad. Within her community, she helps organize and plan trainings and events that support families built through foster care and adoption. An advocate for adoptees, children in foster care, and families, she is committed to connecting children and families with supportive communities and resources that help them thrive.

mh-photoAbout WACAP Communications Editor Missy Harrel: Missy joined WACAP’s communication team in 2011. She spent the first part of her career in nonprofit program management focused on child welfare and early learning, as well as teaching in higher education. Growing up with family and friends who were adopted, she has an ongoing interest in sharing about family and the stories they create together. She blends her communications background with a love of learning and technology. She enjoys reading a poem with a good cup of coffee in hand.

Image Source: Pexels stock photo


WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents) is one of the largest and most experienced international nonprofit adoption and child assistance agencies in the United States. Since 1976, we’ve placed over 10,000 children with loving adoptive parents and provided food, medical care and education to more than 200,000 children around the world.
This entry was posted in Adoption, Advice, Foster Care and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Beyond “Naughty or Nice”: What Our Children’s Unwanted Behavior Can Teach Us

  1. Thanks for this. So helpful

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