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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 3, No. 2
July 1998

Predicting and Dealing with Violence

When they think about maintaining their safety on the job, social workers always want to know: Is it possible to predict who will be violent? What can I do to prevent a situation from becoming violent? And what should I do to protect myself if someone strikes out at me?

Predicting Violence

Are there factors common to those who commit violent acts? In fact, there are. Research has identified certain traits and factors that make people more inclined to violence:

Prior Violence. Each time someone commits a violent act, it is more probable that violence will happen again. Since this is the single best predictor of violence, it is a good idea to ask questions about past or current violent behavior during your initial contact with a child or family member. Specifically, you want to know about a person's most violent act, and how often he or she has violent thoughts.

Certain Feelings. Several internal factors have been associated with aggressive encounters. These include fear, humiliation, boredom, grief, and a sense of powerlessness. To reduce risk, avoid putting clients in positions that embarrass them. Rather, give them knowledge that empowers them and help them see other, nonviolent options.

Physical Factors. Physical factors increase the risk of violence as well. These include lack of sleep, physical exhaustion, use of drugs or alcohol, brain trauma, heat, hunger, cold, physical disability, or chronic pain.

Situational Factors. Situational factors are also predictive of violence. Access to weapons, experiencing childhood abuse or aggression in the home, or feeling a sense of injustice or oppression can lead to violence.

Forced Removal. There is growing evidence that demonstrates that violence is more likely when children or adults are taken from their living situations, especially if they are removed in front of family or friends. Therefore, removals should always be planned events. Never conduct one alone.

What to Look for

Even if you do not have any information about a person's past history or current emotional state, there are signs you can look for. Observe the person's body: is she pacing or fidgeting? Clenching her fists or jaws? Does she have a "wild" look in her eyes? Is she out of touch with reality? Is she speaking in a loud voice or becoming verbally abusive? If you see these behaviors, take immediate steps to reduce the tension before it escalates.

Reducing Tension

You are on a home visit, and Mom's boyfriend comes home. He glares at you and paces around the room. When you explain who you are and why are visiting, he yells at you. He begins cursing and gesturing, but stays away from you. What do you do?

Unfortunately, there is no "right" answer, no technique that will work in every situation. Ideally, though, you want to help the angry person "come down" from his or her anger.

The main rule (and it's easier said than done) is to remain calm. A calm tone, demeanor, and presence transfers to others. Speak in a clear and direct manner, so the person can hear what you are saying through the anger.

It is not a good idea, however, to tell the client to "calm down." By saying this, you communicate that you do not understand—if you did, you would understand why he or she is so upset. Instead, be empathetic. Talk about the frustration or problem that has come up. Reflect feelings and behaviors such as "you seem angry." Take responsibility for your mistakes.

It may be easier to remain calm if you remember this isn't personal—the person is angry at the situation, not you. Defensiveness on your part validates the angry person, increasing the tension (Horejsi & Garthwait, 1997).

Reinforce your calm tone with nonthreatening, non-confrontational body language. Move slowly. Avoid putting your hands on your hips. Position yourself to the side of the person, so you are not squarely facing them. Avoid extensive eye contact and physical closeness. Do not touch an angry person. Do not stand between the person and the door.

You can also use different strategies to help an angry person calm down. One method is to offer the person choices, such as talking later or agreeing on a cooling off period. Allow the person to save face—give him or her a way out.

Attempting to distract or change the subject can sometimes work, but be careful, as this may further anger people if they realize you are diverting them. Don't use humor—in the haze of anger, it is too easily misinterpreted.

Even if the person seems to be calming down, be patient—it takes a person about 30 to 40 minutes to calm down from anger physiologically (Griffin et al., 1995). If you have done what you can and things still seem to be escalating, leave the situation and/or get help.

If Aggression Occurs

The angry boyfriend doesn't calm down. Suddenly he comes at you, his hands outstretched. What do you do?

Anger and aggression cannot always be contained. If a person attempts to assault you, protect yourself. Your first step should always be to leave the room and get away from the situation. If you cannot leave, call for help and:

  • Protect yourself from head injuries. Block blows with pillows, arms, clipboard, etc.
  • If you fall, block the attack with your feet and legs.
  • If your arm is grabbed, break the hold by twisting quickly toward the person's thumb.
  • If you are choked, raise both arms straight up and quickly turn around. Your arms and shoulders will break the hold.
  • If you are bitten, push into the bite, don't pull away.
  • If your hair is pulled, press down on the person's hand with both of yours.
  • Weapon: Never reach for the weapon. Encourage the person to talk. Focus on the person, and keep your distancem (Flick, 1996; Griffin, 1997).


Safety is essential to your success—you can't help a family through a crisis if you are afraid for your own well-being. Therefore it is crucial to know how to identify potentially dangerous individuals and what to do when you encounter them. By maintaining your awareness and being proactive, you improve your ability to do your job, as well as stay safe.


Brady, E. (1993). Coping with violent behavior: A handbook for social work staff. Harlow, United Kingdom: Longman Group.

Brown, R., Bute, S., & Ford, P. (1986). Social workers at risk: The prevention and management of violence. London: British Association of Social Workers.

Dernocoeur, K. (1993, July). Tips on defusing a violent situation. JEMS, 78-79.

Flick, J. (1996). Defusing potentially violent situations: Keeping yourself and others safe. Unpublished. Presented at social worker safety training.

Fraser, M. (1995). Violence overview. In R. Edwards (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Work. Washington, DC: NASW Press, 2453-2460.

Horejsi, C. & Garthwait, C. (1997). Be careful out there: CPS worker safety in rural areas. Protecting Children, 13(1), 12-14.

Griffin, W., Montsinger, J., & Carter, N. (1997). Resource guide for administrators and other personnel. Durham, NC: ILR, Inc.

Hughes, D. (1994). Assessment of the potential for violence. Psychiatric Annals, 24(11), 579-583.

Murdach, A. (1993). Practice forum: Working with potentially assaultive clients. Health and Social Work, 18(4), 307-312.

Nadwairski, J. A. (1994). Inner city safety for home care providers. Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, 2, 4-6.

Star, B. (1984). Patient violence/therapist safety. Social Work, May/June, 225-230.

1998 Jordan Institute for Families