Most of us know (or are related to) individuals who seem unable to regulate their emotions when they are triggered to anger. Explosive reactions could be verbal and/or physical and often accompany diagnoses such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Bipolar Disorder, Personality Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Anti-Social Personality Disorder, among others.
However, labels don't help alleviate the trauma and turmoil that is caused by explosive episodes and often, individuals who present this behaviour do not even have a diagnosis. Family members may live in fear and walk on eggshells around them, always second-guessing their attempts at effective communication, which could result in their own diminished self-esteem and loss of trust in themselves. I think the best we can do, after making sure we and our families are safe, is to try to understand the individuals in our lives who are quick to temper so we don’t take the behaviour personally. Understanding also helps us choose our own reaction. If we are not intentionally provoking them (sometimes we may be), but they are triggered to heightened states of stress anyway, why would this be?
The explosive personalities often have very intelligent and creative minds with many amazing qualities, but unfortunately lacking in other areas like self-regulation (self-control) and the ability to keep themselves calm. They may be confused, easily frustrated, anxious, and inflexible in their thinking. Life can be very stressful for them, and they are often in crisis mode. When they are stressed, feeling threatened or triggered they may react from an impulsive 'fight or flight' mechanism in their brains. Lashing out with angry aggressive behavior seems justified to them when they feel victimized. They don't have adequate problem solving and communication skills, and often feel judged or misunderstood by others.
It is incredibly hard to be in a relationship with someone like this but I think it may be easier to find solutions in a parent/child situation than a spousal relationship, as a strong parental instinct and bond may foster more willingness by the parent to learn support strategies. A parent may be more able to feel compassion and empathy, to understand what may be going on for their child behind their volatile behaviour. My next article will focus on strategies to defuse situations with our explosive children before they become potential verbally or physically abusive.
It all starts with understanding of the following: What were the circumstances leading up to the explosive behaviour? What is the perception of their reality (how they see things is different than how we see things and children don't live in our adult world)? What were their triggered emotions (fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, jealousy, stress, embarrassment, sadness, shame...)? The feelings may cause a deep vulnerability which is compensated for by stressed anger and lashing out. Understanding their story is very important, even if we don't agree with or relate to it.
A typical scenario between a parent who doesn't understand and a child with emotional regulation issues may go like this: Parent communicates a need, expectation, rule, or consequence of action (or lack thereof). Child reacts in a big way, as they perceive the parent being unfair, mean or picking on them, or are triggered into anxiety and fear. Their response is avoidance or stronger boundaries and resistance like demanding to be left alone, rudeness, name calling, swearing and gaslighting... which elicits a counter-response from the parent which may include threats, punishments, consequences etc, often resulting in a power struggle and yelling match.
All that has happened in this situation is a clash of wills, a fight for control, resentment, and more division in the relationship. It doesn't feel good for the child nor the parent, who often later regrets their part in exacerbating the situation. And the relationship suffers.
This is what we know about the explosive personality: It does not feel good for them to be this way. Their behaviour does not build their sense of self-esteem and make them feel like a good person. They are lacking emotional regulation skills and the ability to be rational, fair, and calm in seeking a solution to any given problem. In his book Your Explosive Child, Dr. Ross Greene refers to these kids as black and white thinkers in a grey world. They may feel out of control and need to grasp for control where they can. Next week I will cover some of his and other psychologist’s suggestions for parents of children with explosive personalities.
Claire Nielsen is a health educator and owner of Aunty Claire’s Elixir for Life Ltd. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org