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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 3, No. 2
July 1998

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 of the successful techniques for dealing with aggressive adolescents on a long-term and short-term basis.

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. Some are discussed elsewhere in this issue. Very few agencies have specific policies about safety, and studies of existing safety standards have found them to be insufficient (Scalera, 1995; Johnson, 1988; Newhill & Wexler, 1997). Some of the precautions not mentioned elsewhere in this issue include:

  • Self defense/restraining violent clients training--contact a local NASW branch

  • Cellular 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, 1995; Scalera, 1993; Johnson, 1988; Newhill & Wexler, 1997)

Of course, all of these precautions are easier said than done. Recognizing a potentially violent client, especially one who is new to you, is an ongoing 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, 1995; Knell, 1995).

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).

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.

"Tips for Working with Aggressive Teens" provides some possible interventions social workers can try with aggressive adolescents.


Carlin, M. (1996). Large group treatment of severely disturbed/conduct-disordered adolescents. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 46(3), 379-395.

Feindler, E. & Ecton, R. (1986). Adolescent anger control. New York: Pergamon Press.

Glick, B. (1996). Aggression replacement training in children and adolescents. In Hatherleigh Guide to Child and Adolescent Therapy. New York: Hatherleigh Press.

Griffin, W., Montsinger, J. & Carter, N. (1995). Resource guide for administrators and other personnel. Durham: ILR, Inc.

Huesmann, L. R., & Eron, L. D. (Eds.). (1986). Television and the aggressive child: A cross-national comparison. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnson, S. (1988). Guidelines for social workers in coping with violent clients. British Journal of Social Work, 18, 377-390.

Knell, S. (1996). Cognitive-behavioral play therapy. In Hatherleigh Guide to Child and Adolescent Therapy. New York: Hatherleigh Press.

Masters, K. (1992). The angry child: Paper tiger or sleeping giant? Santa Monica, CA: Psychiatric Hospital Division of National Medical Enterprises, Inc.

Newhill, C., & Wexler, S. (1997). Client violence toward children and youth services social workers. Children and Youth Services Review, 19(3), 195-212.

Scalera, N. (1993). The critical need for specialized health and safety measures for child welfare workers. Child Welfare, 74(2), 337-349.

1998 Jordan Institute for Families