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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #50, 12/20/2006

The Volatiles
— or —
The Chaos of the Common Man

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Without going into detail, I can tell you that I have had intimate experience with the cliental of the child welfare system. This has given me a deep appreciation for caseworkers and the difficulties they are facing. There are powerful psychological forces at work that can overwhelm any good-intentioned intervention.

The real problem with these families isn't drugs; it is emotional volatility. Most of the hard-core clients of Family Services are living lives of cyclical, self-generated chaos, of which drugs are only one symptom. Child abuse and domestic violence are volatility issues, as is most juvenile delinquency. In fact, almost all of the non-perfunctory cases in Family Court involve at least one party being unable to keep on an even keel.

For lack of a better word, I call these adults "the Volatiles". This class of people may overlap with Borderline Personality Disorder, but I mean the term more loosely: people of limited emotional control.

What do I mean by emotional volatility? Imagine that each person has a thermostat inside them that regulates their emotions—you know, like the thermostat in your home. If you set the thermostat to a comfortable 78 degrees, then the furnace or air conditioner is automatically cycled on and off to keep the temperature close to that mark. Emotionally, that's how most of us work. We don't get too euphoric or too depressed, and we have a pretty constant attitude toward other people. We may get annoyed with a family member, but we're not going to try to kill them. When we encounter a stress, we find a way to compensate for it so it doesn't eat us up. We keep our emotional temperature close to a comfortable level.

The volatile client also has a thermostat, and it might work okay when things are calm. If you introduce a significant stress, however, then the system goes haywire, because the person tends to overcompensate for whatever it is they are feeling inside.

This is nicely illustrated by the way a Volatile often responds to the real thermostat in their home: If they are feeling cold, they turn the thermostat way up, as far as it can go. The furnace chugs away for a while, and soon the house is sweltering. Now, they're feeling hot, so they open up the windows and turn on the air conditioning full blast... until they're freezing again. They can't just relax and leave the thermostat alone. Furthermore, if you try to explain to them how thermostats work, they don't seem to listen. In any test of intellect vs. feeling, intellect will usually be overruled.

This is exactly how they respond to their own emotions. If they get a little depressed, then they panic and do something desperate to try to erase the feeling—like drinking, taking drugs or lashing out at someone. Of course, this action destabilizes the system rather than bringing it back to stasis. Their relationships deteriorate, causing more panic and pushing them into a drug binge or violence.

Their whole experience of life is alien to us. We see the world as more-or-less constant; they see it as ever changing, for or against them. These are the people who get angry at traffic jams and inanimate objects and who attack the very people who are trying to help them. Their whole view of the world is colored by how they feel right now, with their feelings of yesterday being quickly forgotten. They can't separate their immediate emotions from the long-term facts of the world, so they tend to respond to the world poorly: inappropriate paranoia interspersed with extraordinary naivete.

For a caseworker or anyone else, dealing with this situation from the outside can be extremely frustrating. You struggle to stabilize the family; things seem to be going well for a while, but then some modest stress comes along, and everything collapses again.

In my view, we are talking about a huge portion of the population: somewhere between 2 and 20 percent, depending on how you define volatility. (The 2 percent would be a strict clinical diagnosis of Borderline Disorder.) The Volatiles tend to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods, because their emotional instability makes it difficult for them to hold a job or pursue an education. We know where those neighborhoods are. If you put pins in the map for every child welfare case, they would be clustered in certain areas of the city. If you grew up in a different kind of neighborhood (as I did), then you may have never seen this emotional instability in action, and it may come as a surprise to you.

At worst, volatility leads to escalating violence that can only be stopped by an arrest. At best, the Volatile can't detect the feelings and needs of others when they conflict with his own. He tends to be impulsive in his decision-making and poor at processing evidence. When responding to others, he can be either unreasonably suspicious or ridiculously gullible, depending on what his emotions want him to believe. He may glorify someone one minute and attack them the next, and in his view, it is that person whose emotions are changing, not him.

In their daily lives, the Volatiles seem to require continuous external stimulation. When television is available, it is turned on all the time, morning, noon and night. Television provides the pacing of their lives and the majority of its content. When not watching television, the volatile is engaged in some other continuously stimulating activity: music, sports, drinking, gambling, etc. The worst thing to them is to have "nothing to do," as this attracts random uncontrolled thoughts. They abhor introspection and will instantly become "bored" and uncomfortable whenever given an opportunity to think about their life and explore their own motivations.

Volatiles can only surf on the rough surface of life; they rarely dive beneath the surface. They lack much curiosity and won't travel beyond well-worn paths. They have little interest in creativity or understanding. Their political opinions are strongly expressed but superficial and are dictated by their feelings. These are not "thinkers," at least in the broader issues of their lives.

Some potential Volatiles, especially males, are drawn into obsessive technical pursuits, like car repair or the collection of sports trivia. If they have any available time, this is where you will find them. This obsessive activity gives them a "center" and makes them much less volatile. When they are engaged in their hobby, they aren't beating on their kids, which is good, but they are also emotionally unavailable. They often tend to leave their kids to raise themselves—or leave them to the mercy of the other parent.

The Volatiles who have no obsessive hobby are in worse shape. They have no "center" and no core source of self-esteem, and no one on the outside can give this to them. In the absence of continuous stimulation, they feel empty. When their life lacks conflict, they may impulsively generate it on their own, because this is the only way they feel alive. Otherwise, they feel like they are drifting and lost. In a weird way, they need external chaos to protect them from their internal emptiness. Although they don't want their lives to be a never-ending hell, they frequently act to create it.

Volatile parents invariably abuse their children, if not physically then mentally. Their discipline is inconsistent: either brutally harsh or perversely permissive. They frequently demand from their children things that they themselves don't abide by, like abstinence from swearing, drinking and drugs. Their words rarely match their actions and don't take into account the child's feelings and experience. The household rules are constantly changing, and many promises are made that are never fulfilled. By adulthood, the offspring is usually twisted by this haphazard parenting into another Volatile himself.

This mental abuse is far worse in the long run than any physical or sexual abuse, and there is almost nothing that anyone on the outside can do about it. We know that there are plenty of terrible parents out there, cranking out the next generation of dysfunctionals, but the government can't take those children away because there are no standards of proof for mental abuse. Furthermore, there would be no place to put these children if it did take them away, as the system is already overwhelmed merely with drug cases.

About all the government can do is respond to obvious parental drug use and physical injuries. These are the only kinds of abuse that can be clearly measured and proved. We can order drug treatment and maybe throw in a few parenting classes, but we are probably never going to repair the deeper problems of the family, which are entrenched in the personalities of its members. The most we can expect is to bring the abuse and neglect to within "acceptable" tolerances—that is, where it is again invisible and unmeasurable. As long as the drug tests come out negative and the parenting classes have been completed, then you have to shove these families out the door and shift your attention to the next train wreck.

Each of these families would absorb infinite resources if you had them, and it might not make much difference. If the parent isn't on drugs but has the emotional maturity of a ten year old, then you can send them to every parenting class available and it's not going to give them good judgment. Furthermore, a lack of judgment is no legal grounds for terminating parental rights.

Drug abuse is resolvable, one way or another. There is no remedy, however, for stupidity.

—G.C.




Reader Comments

“Bullseye.” — 12/21/06 (rating=4)

“Pollyanna here on "The Volatiles". Parenting is not about intelligence (fortunately), but rather loving commitment and responsibility - neither of which require intelligence. I think you actually touched on the major issue with, "...they need external chaos to protect them from their internal emptiness." It is the emptiness, the "hole in the soul", not the lack of intelligence that is the individual (and perhaps even societal) need. And perhaps we can't fill that any more than we can correct terminal stupidity, but for me - hope must survive. I wish I had solutions commensurate with my hope, but such is not requisiste for Pollyanna any more than solutions commensurate with pessimism for the Philospher.” —Realist Pollyanna 12/21/06

“type identified, but where are the reasons?” —tularetrump@hotmail.com 12/21/06 (rating=3)

“man its my mother-in-law to a tee.” — 5/17/09 (rating=3)

Ratings so far: 3 4 3 3 4 5 5 3 4 5 4 5 (Average=4)

Family Court Philosopher:
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