Affect regulation capacity research with family violence perpetration and victimization has largely been conducted using quantitative measures of static affective states and behavioral outcomes. Stress physiology research suggests regulation is a complex dynamic biopsychosocial process, of which behavior is only one component. This paper addresses the gap in knowledge about the phenomenology, the lived experience, of affect regulation as a dynamic biopsychosocial process for family violence-exposed emerging adults. Youth described their experiences when feeling as if they were going to “lose it” but did not, as well as when they did.
We conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with 16 emerging adults (mean age 20.8) who reported at least one type of family violence victimization. Most reported verbal abuse and neglect with only a few reporting chronic physical abuse. Gender self-identification was male (n=8), female (n=7), and one gender non-binary participant. Six were in foster care for 9 months to 12 years and 75% spoke French. Female participants reported higher mean rates of affect dysregulation on a quantitative measure administered as a pilot with this population. Participants were recruited at two agencies serving youth in Québec via fliers and staff referrals.
The semi-structured interview elicited youths’ descriptions of the biological, psychological, emotional, and behavioral aspects of their capacity and challenges to inhibit reactivity in states of high affective arousal. This approach generated a rich lexicon of description that prioritized the experiential domain of the phenomenon of affect regulation and dysregulation. Interviews were transcribed verbatim (French or English) and coded informed by phenomenological methodology using NVivo qualitative software.
Youth reported regulation strategies of suppressing emotions until they were in safe spaces where they could release affective responses without negative consequences. Others reported instances when their inability to inhibit reactivity resulted in loss of housing, income, or support services. Most were not impulsively reactive though some reported the value of anger to protect against feelings vulnerability and sadness. Peers played an important role in managing states of affective arousal for many, but not all. Some found social relationships to be triggering.
Conclusions and implications: Findings highlight the variation in capacities to self-regulate demonstrated by family violence-exposed youth and suggest that exposure alone does not predict impaired regulation. Taking a more dynamic collaborative approach to understanding affect regulation capacity as a process that is amenable to enhancement through interventions with emerging adults that respects their lived experiences and seeks to enhance the regulation skills they already possess may improve intervention outcomes to improve affect regulation.