Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Adults Behaving Badly


Gary W. Reece, Ph.d.

The 11:00 news has become a depressing recount of all the stupid, violent, impulse ridden, out of control, episodes of adults behaving badly. In short they have given themselves to their emotions overriding all social conventions, morality, good sense, and human kindness. This unregulated behavior seems at times tragic, comic, and pathetically stupid. Murder, domestic violence, car chases at high speed, hit and run accidents, drunken beach parties that destroy a block of businesses and a teen ager trying to break into a home by climbing down the chimney; and finally, a young man walks into a school with an AK 47 with 500 rounds of ammunition.

This daily litany has become so monotonous that it is in danger of appearing to be seemingly a normal day in the life of our cities and country. What is at the root of all this emotionally out of control behavior, if this madness wasn’t so tragic and of epidemic proportion, it could be laughed at as “just stupid human tricks.”

I was once asked by a parent to comment on why her child seemed to be so easily distressed and given to temper tantrums and emotional melt downs at the most inappropriate moments. This form of human behavior is called dysregulation. What is dysregulation? In order to understand this particular disorder we must look to understand the early attachment histories of the individuals involved, either adult or children because it has the same root.

For example, I had a case several years ago: she was a two year old girl who had been placed in a foster home because her father had badly abused her. When I made a home visit and was able to observe her playing, I immediately noticed the contusions, emaciated body, partially shaved head, bruised lips and fearful look in her eyes. While playing she became immediately unglued, bursting into tears when she broke a pencil point. When she couldn’t figure out a puzzle she threw the pieces across the room and screamed. Her emotional volatility, low threshold for frustration, and erratic, poor impulse control was typical of a badly abused child. Dysregulation, in a classic case.

Emotion is a fundamental part of attachment relationships in the early years and throughout each person’s lifespan. The earliest forms of communication are involved in the regulation of primary emotional states. These emotional states are the music of the mind which creates the fabric of our lives and our relationships with others. It is the difference between the worlds of emotion as viewed in joyous color or the world stripped of joy and viewed as black and white commonly experienced as depression.

Achieving self-regulation and integration of the self-state is a difficult task under optimum conditions. Basic trust, world-building, emotional control and processing, are all accomplished through the developing attachment bond. The means of learning this is through emotional attunement. Through emotional attunement, a child learns to sense and feel his/her own emotions and most importantly the emotions of others. This becomes the basis for empathy. When a caregiver responds to the child’s needs as signaled by crying or other behaviors indicating distress or discomfort it sets up a pattern of regulating discomfort and emotion. When the mother responds in a sensitive, timely, and appropriately competent manner the child becomes soothed. When this happens over and over again, the child learns through the regularity of this social interaction that there is a reliable caretaker who is ensuring the safety, stability, and well-being of this child. She learns to trust, to modulate her emotions, and to eventually self-regulate by internalizing the process. This process teaches her patience, frustration tolerance, problem solving, and how to express needs appropriately and how to tolerate stressful emotions. Attunement also leads to empathy and a willingness to be intimately connected with others. Dysregulation is often the product of attunement failure. Since all relationships experience some level of breach or rupture, it is the regular repair of attunement failures which teaches the child how to self regulate, deal with frustration and the pain of unmet needs.

Children with attachment issues due to abuse and interrupted attachment bring with them issues related to trust and control, manifested in a tendency toward dysregulation. We know that it is most difficult to experience intimacy if one does not trust another and does not know how to resolve conflict, heal a relationship breach or work through hurt feelings and resentment. In the child’s home it is incumbent upon parents to establish a climate of safety, consistency, security and a positive affect regulatory environment. It is extremely important to help a child regulate emotion while maintaining the relationship. For the child, it is important to help them understand that frightening emotions do not lead to the feared consequence of abuse, shame, humiliation or abandonment. It is incumbent on parents to be attuned and regulate emotion and behavior. This is primarily dependent on their own learned abilities from childhood. In other words, we tend to parent like we were parented. The age-old maxim is, if you can regulate your own emotions, you will be less threatened, frustrated, or disturbed by extreme behavior and emotional dysregulation in your own children.

Children who have not been so fortunate have difficulty with change, frustration, too much stimulation, fatigue, hunger, and other stressors. When these conditions are present we have the probability of some sort of unpleasant eruption of emotionally driven behavior.

Dysregulation whether in an adult or child is not pleasant to be around. When it is a child the solution is to quietly take the child to a spot where he will not be so stimulated, has a chance to calm down, and be reassured that he will be all right and safe. For adults it is usually more problematic, their toys are bigger and more dangerous and their episodes are driven by long pent up stressors and precipitating events. Their explosions can be more violent and unpredictable. But nevertheless, they also need a time out. Usually in a small cell with bars: that’s if he hasn’t killed someone or gone on a country wide kidnapping spree.

Dysregulation is a problem acquired early in life. It is a problem typified by not being able to regulate emotions, to integrate them and discharge them appropriately in the context of relationships and other social behaviors. There are warning signs; the buildup of frustration, irritability, escalating emotional levels, behavior becoming less predictable, uncontrolled and then the explosion. Recognizing the triggers in ourselves or in our children can save us all a lot of embarrassing moments and even our lives. When we text pictures of our genitals, grope women in public, and get into bar fights, or impulsively steal a Ferrari for a joy ride, we make the tabloids and become fodder for late night Comics.

Adults who lack impulse control, do not know how to modulate their feelings. They do not know how to heal relationships. They lack empathy for others and are children who have been stuck at the level of having temper tantrums. They do not know how to be emotionally tuned into themselves or others. This is understandable in children but, in adults it’s not only ugly, it’s very often dangerous.

Leave a Reply