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Managing a Family Member going Ballistic

November 27, 2016

It almost doesn’t matter what triggered it. What matters is it is escalating out of control. Someone in your home is going ballistic. Someone is losing it and there is a risk of property damage and/or a physical altercation. It is already scary. Very scary.

These are situations not to be taken lightly. Emotional harm has already occurred and now there is a risk of physical harm. This is already a traumatic situation that will live on as another family story. But what do you do in the moment?

It is important to realize that in these moments, good judgment has left the home. Not only is the judgment of the person going ballistic impaired, but so too the person who is trying to bring control to the situation.

The person who is trying to bring control is likely very frightened and or angered as well. The person who is trying to bring control will likely be shouting and/or cajoling and/or using threats of punishment and/or even trying to physically subdue the family member who is going ballistic. There is likely a shouting match of each person admonishing the behavior of the other with each demanding the other to calm down. The demands to calm down will form a standoff with neither willing to calm down first for fear of ceding control to the other. Dangerous situations indeed.

The goal in these moments is not to prove who is right or wrong with regard to what ever triggered the event. Gaining calm is never about seeking to control the other person or admonishing the other person to calm down. Telling someone out of control to calm down is more likely waving a red cape to a bull. It only inflames.

The secret to calming another begins with calming oneself. The goal is to stabilize behavior and to make the situation physically and emotionally safe. If you really want to gain control and settle the behavior of the family member going ballistic, then no longer seek to control their behavior. Seek to control your own. Three strategies for calming oneself include:

  1. Remove oneself from the situation;
  2. Remain neutral and non-responsive to taunts and threats;
  3. Exemplify a calm demeanor with hands by your side and shoulders down.

Being calm captures attention differently than seeking to control by over-powering the other. Seeking to overpower is perceived as a threat thus escalating the very behavior we seek to reduce. Being calm however allows the other to reflect more upon their own behavior rather than having to respond to someone perceived as this threat.

Once you are calm, then you can talk with the person going ballistic about you feeling scared and sorry for the situation and wondering about how they are feeling. The objective is to appear empathetic instead of angry. This is nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing about the triggering event. This is only about restoring calm and peace. The situation must be safe for everyone, emotionally and physically.

Remember, the triggering event can always be addressed later. The current priority is restoring calm as only in calm can anything be reasonably resolved. Do not worry about addressing the triggering event until calm has been restored. Your family must be safe before anything else.

If you feel that even with your calm, the family member going ballistic still may not settle, then call for emergency services. This is not to be done as a threat or punishment. If the person going ballistic sees this as a threat or punishment, it will run the risk of escalating matters until the arrival of emergency services.

Calling emergency services can be done privately and quietly as you maintain your calm disposition. The role of emergency services is not to get a person in trouble with police, but to help restore the peace. Remember, the priority is safety and if you cannot provide that on your own, then the use of emergency services is in everyone’s interest.

If by the way, you involve yourself in a physical altercation to gain control of the out of control person, there is a high risk of physical harm to both of you, a more fractured relationship and a greater likelihood of assault charges being laid even against the person seeking to restore calm. These are remarkably high risk moments and the degree to which you maintain your calm, you lower the risk of a bad outcome. Do not worry about broken property. Holes in walls, broken lamps are nothing compared to physical injury and assault charges. Maintain your calm. You can always leave the house and wait outside or at a neighbor for emergency services and this will still provide a better outcome that involvement in a physical altercation. Let your cooler head prevail.

Most triggering event are not life threatening. The eruption of violence can be life threatening. While you may feel in the moment the triggering event must be resolved, it is best left for another time and the discussion may be better had if facilitated by a trained professional. While at some point matters will need to be resolved, it will already be apparent that the strategies taken that gave rise to the ballistic behavior aren’t conducive to true resolution. You may have to let the issue go in order to revisit it later with help. It truly is time for professional help.

Most people will think it is the person going ballistic who needs the help the most. However, that person is often not open to attending professional help. As such, do not wait for that person to get help for themselves. As the person or persons who are responsible for facilitating or maintaining calm, you going for help first can be more productive that the other person going first. You can develop your problem solving and dialogue strategies to better manage the behavior of the other.

What matters in these situations is that someone gets help. Standing on who goes first is only another heated argument in waiting. Truth is, everyone will need help with this. You going first opens the door for the other. Now that calm has been restored, please do get help for yourself.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship issue. I am available in person and by Skype.

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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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http://www.yoursocialworker.com

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

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