Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of Intermittent Explosive Disorder

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from intermittent explosive disorder, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding IED

Learn about IED

Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) is an impulse-control disorder that is characterized by sudden, unwarranted episodes of anger. This disorder causes people to act in a hostile manner or impulsively participate in recurrent aggressive outbursts. People who suffer from IED have described feeling as though they have suddenly lost control of their emotions and become completely overwhelmed by feelings of extreme anger. Intermittent explosive disorder can cause people to attack objects, animals, and/or other people.

IED typically presents itself in the early teen years. Individuals are not given a diagnosis of intermittent explosive disorder unless they have displayed at least three episodes of unprovoked, impulsive aggressiveness that is considered to be grossly out of proportion to any pre-existing psychosocial stressors. People who suffer from IED report that, prior to their episode of acting out, they feel a sense of tension building up as a result of their rage. They state that, once they have acted out and the tension has been released, they start to experience feelings of embarrassment or remorse.

While IED can be extremely disruptive to an individual’s life, as well as to the lives of those around him or her, it can be successfully managed through proper treatment.


IED statistics

Intermittent explosive disorder is said to affect approximately 1 in 12 teenagers. It is also believed that nearly 82% of people who have IED are also suffering from another mental health disorder, with the most common being depression, bipolar disorder, and/or substance abuse disorders.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for IED in children and teens

The development of intermittent explosive disorder is believed to be the result of a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental factors, as described in the following:

Genetic: Researchers and other professionals in the field have hypothesized that there is some genetic component to the presence of IED because the traits have been known to be passed down from parents to children. However, there has not yet been any specific gene identified as having the most prominent impact.

Physical: Research findings have suggested that IED may occur as the result of abnormalities in the parts of the brain that are responsible for regulating behaviors, arousal, and inhibition. Impulsive aggression is also thought to be related to abnormalities in the areas of the brain that inhibit or prohibit muscular activity through the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Environmental: Many people believe that the environment in which a person grows up can have a significant impact on whether or not he or she will develop the symptoms of intermittent explosive disorder. For example, it is believed by some that children who grew up in a home where they were given harsh punishments will develop the symptoms of IED because they are following the examples of the violent behaviors that were set by their parents.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male (IED is said to be more prevalent in men than it is in women)
  • Family history of mental illness, especially mood disorders
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of substance abuse
  • Exposure to violence
  • Having been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused
  • Growing up in a chaotic environment
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Certain medical conditions

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of IED in children and teens

The signs and symptoms of IED will vary from person to person. Examples of symptoms that a child or adolescent suffering from intermittent explosive disorder may exhibit can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Breaking or smashing things
  • Damaging property
  • Physically attacking people
  • Verbal aggressiveness
  • Excessive, unprovoked angry outbursts
  • Road rage
  • Self-harm

Physical symptoms:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Tingling sensations
  • Tremors
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hearing echoes

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling a sense of losing control

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable irritability
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Periods of emotional detachment
  • Rage
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Extreme anger


Effects of IED in children and teens

Without treatment, the long-term effects of IED can be detrimental on children or adolescents, and the ramifications of their behaviors have the possibility of following them into adulthood. Some examples of the negative effects of untreated intermittent explosive disorder can include:

  • Academic failure
  • Being suspended from school
  • Low self-worth
  • Inability to develop and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Social isolation or impairment
  • Legal problems / incarceration
  • Self-harm

Co-Occurring Disorders

IED and co-occurring disorders

It is common for people who are suffering from IED to suffer from symptoms of other mental disorders as well. Sometimes the symptoms of the disorders will overlap or will directly mirror the symptoms of another illness. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder (CD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)