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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 21, No. 2
April 2016

Working with Aggressive Adolescents

Violence and aggression among adolescents and children is a growing problem (Glick, 1996). When working with potentially violent adolescents, social workers have the right to keep themselves safe. But how?

Although it is impossible to reduce risk to zero, there are many ways to decrease risk significantly. This article will discuss some effective techniques for dealing with aggressive adolescents on a long-term and short-term basis.

Protecting Yourself
Social workers may not always have the opportunity to enter into an extended therapeutic relationship with aggressive youth. In fact, you may only deal with such an individual once or twice. Therefore, it is important to know some ways to protect yourself, short of implementing a complete anger management program.

To stay safe with potentially violent clients, social workers must take several precautions. Many agencies lack specific policies about safety, and studies of existing safety standards have found them to be insufficient (Scalera, 1995; Johnson, 1988; Newhill & Wexler, 1997). Some key precautions to take include:

  • Training in self-defense/client restraint--contact a local NASW branch
  • Cell phones--especially in rural areas
  • Knowing a client's "triggers"--being cautious when discussing sensitive subjects
  • Meeting clients in a safe place--the office during business hours is safest
  • Report incidents--write everything down, consider a police report, medical help (Griffin, 1997; Scalera, 1993; Johnson, 1988; Newhill & Wexler, 1997)

Of course, these precautions are easier said than done. Recognizing a potentially violent client, especially one who is new to you, is a challenge. But if agencies and individuals remain aware of the risks and take appropriate precautions, workers and clients will usually be safe.

Replacing Aggression
When we are able to develop an extended relationship with an adolescent, we may find ourselves helping that person manage anger and find ways to avoid aggression.

To enhance his ability to help the aggressive teens he works with, Dr. Barry Glick developed a program called Aggression Replacement Training (ART). This method is based on the finding that aggressive youth demonstrate four basic traits: verbal and physical aggression, skill deficiency, immaturity, and withdrawal (Glick, 1996).

To safely work with aggressive adolescents, social workers must recognize these clients. Teens may exhibit disruptive behavior, such as using profanity, defying authority, and seeking attention, without actual violence. These behaviors are strong clues that violence may occur.

Aggressive adolescents usually lack the social skills required to solve problems appropriately, such as the ability to express their feelings or take responsibility for their own actions. They are often immature, and exhibit a short attention span, poor cognitive abilities, and a preference for younger playmates. Again, these traits are a clue to the social worker that violence may occur. Signs of withdrawal, including feelings of inferiority, anxiety, and over-sensitivity to teasing and criticism, may also be present (Glick, 1996).

Intervening in a way that addresses these problems may be the best way to cease aggression (Glick, 1996). Helping adolescents set goals they can accomplish and find the resources necessary to follow through replaces their aggression with more productive behavior. This is far more effective than simply punishing them for violence (Glick, 1996; Knell, 1998).

With these findings in mind, Glick developed Aggression Replacement Training (ART). ART has three main components--Structured Learning Training, which teaches social skills, Anger Control Training, which teaches youth a variety of ways to manage their anger, and Moral Education, which helps youth develop a higher level of moral reasoning (Glick, 1996).

Social Skills. Glick uses a four-step process to teach adolescents social skills. First, he shows them the particular behavior, such as saying thank-you, asking for help, complaining, apologizing, giving instructions, asking permission, standing up for your rights, and setting a goal.

Next he gives the youth a chance to try the skill by role playing. The client and another adolescent, staff member, or family member act out a situation that has upset the client in the past. Afterwards, Glick discusses the role play with the teen.

Over a period of days or weeks, many skills are acted out. Gradually, the adolescent becomes comfortable using new social skills, and is more likely to use them effectively in real life to avoid trouble (Glick, 1996).

In the fourth step, the adolescent is expected to use the skill in actual situations where he or she might otherwise have resorted to violence (Glick, 1996).

Anger Control Training. Glick's program also teaches specific ways to handle anger. The adolescent must learn the following skills:

  • Identifying triggers: external and internal events that provoke anger (such as people saying "no" or insulting us [external] and fears that "I'm not good enough" or feeling confused [internal]).
  • Identifying cues: physical signs of youth's own anger--tightened muscles, clenched fists, etc.
  • Using reminders: thinking or telling his or herself to "chill out" or "he/she didn't mean to hurt you" or "it's not worth fighting over."
  • Using reducers: techniques such as deep breathing, counting backwards, imagining a peaceful scene, picturing the consequences of aggression.
  • Using self-evaluation: adolescent thinks/talks about how well he or she used the above steps.

These steps comprise Anger Control Training (see also Feindler & Ecton, 1986).

Teaching Youth Anger Management

Here are some anger management steps from Masters (1992) that might be helpful to teach to youth you work with.

  1. Admit that you are angry, to yourself and/or to someone else.

  2. Believe you can control your anger. Tell yourself that you can!

  3. Calm down. Control your emotions. Take some time for yourself, breath deeply, count to ten, cry . . . do whatever works for you.

  4. Decide how to solve the problem. This step only works once you are calm. Figure out what you need, and what's fair.

  5. Express yourself assertively. Ask for what you need. Speak calmly, without yelling, and people will listen to you.

Moral Education. This is done by trainers working with groups of 12 adolescents. They present the group with fictional moral dilemmas, which serve to facilitate discussion of concepts such as justice, concern for others, and personal rights and responsibilities (Glick, 1996).

Learning to properly use the ART system is a long, complex process, and no one social worker can enact ART by him or herself. However, there are important lessons for the social worker to take from Glick's work. It is important to remember that aggression takes many forms, and that its causes are numerous. Simply punishing aggressive adolescents is unlikely to change their behavior significantly (Glick, 1996). Rather, we must take the time to address the many factors in our clients' lives that contribute to aggression.

The box below provides some possible interventions social workers can try with aggressive adolescents.

Tips for Working with Aggressive Teens
  • Notice signs of aggression. Learn to identify clues that a teen is potentially violent. Know how to defend yourself and how to restrain a client if necessary.

  • Offer alternatives. Aggressive teens may not know what to do with their feelings.

  • Expose them to positive ways to expend energy, like exercising, drawing and painting, running, playing sports--even crying.

  • Practice problem solving. Most adolescents get angry for good reasons, but express their anger inappropriately. Teach them how to resolve conflicts through honest discussion and compromise.

  • Quiet time. Encourage young people to take time for themselves, away from noise and activity. Explain that this calming, quiet time is a gift to themselves.

  • Shut off the TV. Studies have linked television with violence and hyperactivity. It's not just the violent content of TV shows, it's the barrage of stimulation that makes it hard to focus.

  • Touch appropriately. Some adolescents and adults use touch only as a means of control or showing aggression. By touching our adolescent clients appropriately (e.g., pats on the back, handshakes), we help them learn a better way to use their bodies. Do not touch a teen who is angry, however.

  • Explain the consequences of violence. When they are relaxed, explain to teens that as adults, violent behavior can hurt their chances of finding a job, alienate friends, or lead to jail. Make sure teens understand that you are simply describing reality, not trying to manipulate them with guilt or fear.

  • Role model. By remaining calm, speaking in a respectful and rational manner, and never condoning violence, even jokingly, you can exemplify the behavior we expect from teens.

  • Set clear standards of behavior. Make certain your clients know that anger is natural and should be expressed, but that violence is unacceptable under any circumstances.

  • Travel safely. Transporting angry, agitated teens can lead to accidents. Always warn drivers if a child they are transporting is upset. If he or she starts to act out while you are on the road, stop the vehicle and give them time to cool off.

Sources: Lagerspetz & Viemero (1986); Masters (1992); Feindler & Ecton (1986);
Glick (1996); Carlin (1996).

References for this and other articles in this issue