Naughty or Nice A Technique for Exploring the Mischievous in Us

Lise Motherwell


Freud attributed healthy adult development to the ability "to work and to love." Terr (2000) argues that the ability to play is an equally important aspect of social, cognitive, and emotional development. Winnicott (1971) writes, "It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self" (p. 54). Play, which involves the capacity to pretend and to shift attention and roles, provides a natural setting in which a therapeutic experience or change may take place.

Naughtiness is a specific form of play: playful misbehavior directed at or against rules, authority figures, or propriety, in which one may get "caught," but which is not likely to hurt anyone else. Naughtiness evokes pleasure, excitement, and delight rather than guilt or shame. The authority's reaction to naughtiness has a big impact on how the subject feels about his/her naughtiness. Thus, naughtiness is a relational interaction, almost always an action in relation to an authority (rule/person/group)—to them ... so it is a topic for group therapy.


This technique can be used in a time-limited group, in ongoing therapy groups that periodically use exercises or techniques to en hance treatment, and in workshops. It is particularly useful in groups where clients have been parentified in childhood. Such clients who define themselves as "good children" may have lost touch with the side of them that takes pleasure in being naughty.

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