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Managing aggression

From: Chapter 4, "'Normal' Aggression," in Acting Out (© 2007)


Even if you work hard to prevent it, if you work with young people you will likely face aggressive behaviour at some point. The strategies described below have worked to lessen the intensity of aggressive behaviours among children and youth in treatment settings. These strategies are designed to help you diffuse a situation or calm a young person; find out what caused the outburst and address the cause; and build better relationships with young people to find out if they need special help.

Control your body language and tone of voice

Through our gestures, postures and facial expressions we express physical, mental or emotional states and communicate them non-verbally to others. Our body language and tone of voice can emphasize the message of our spoken words—or it can contradict that message.

If you're confronted with a young person who is behaving aggressively or making threats, be sure to control your own body language and tone of voice. Certain types of body language and tones of voice can disturb some young people and cause their aggression levels to rise.


  • keep your voice calm and even
  • keep your facial expression as neutral as possible to avoid showing emotion 
  • maintain eye contact to show you are giving attention, but don't insist that the young person maintain eye contact with you 
  • make sure the person has enough physical space 
  • if you need to, take a few seconds to calm yourself down before interacting.


  • shake or wave your fingers in the young person's face 
  • put your hands on your hips 
  • glare, sneer, scowl or frown 
  • get too close 
  • yell or sigh in exasperation 
  • slam doors, books or other objects.

Stay calm

When you are confronted with a child or youth who is behaving aggressively, you may find yourself becoming angry or frustrated. These feelings are natural, but if you express them you may further disturb the young person. Approach calmly, and try to get the young person to focus on his or her own feelings. Use simple statements, such as "It looks like you're having a hard time. It doesn't need to be like that." Remember that when you approach young people who are behaving aggressively, they will often become verbally aggressive toward you. They may yell or swear; ignore it. Don't take the negative statements made to you at such a time personally. Also, don't try to solve the problem or conflict that led to the aggressive behaviour while a young person is acting aggressively toward you. Focus first on letting the person know that you care about him or her, are concerned about what is happening and are there to help.

Offer a way out

Offer a young person a way out of the situation. Give clear choices, with safe limitations. In this way, you allow the young person to retain a feeling of control. You can give the person an opportunity to retain his or her self-esteem. For example, you might ask, "Would you like to sit over there for a while to gather your thoughts?"

Discourage bystanders

When a young person is acting up, ask peers who may be watching to leave the setting and continue with their activities. For example, if a conflict between students erupts in a school hallway, direct students who are not involved politely but firmly to their next class—or draw the students who are arguing away from the crowd into an empty classroom. The reaction of a crowd can encourage some young people to increase the aggressiveness of their behaviour.

Don't make threats

Don't give warnings about consequences that you are not prepared to follow through on. Young people will not respond well to warnings if they have learned through past experience that they will not necessarily have to face them. When a young person is showing very aggressive behaviour, resist the temptation to threaten him or her with a consequence that you know you cannot deliver or that is unreasonably severe.

Don't make predictions

Saying, "You always do this when…" reinforces negative behaviours.

Wait for the right moment

Wait to talk to a young person about inappropriate behaviours until after an incident involving aggression is over, when everyone has calmed down.

Maintain safety

Make sure that the young people and staff members who are present during an incident involving aggression are safe at all times. If you can't control the situation, be prepared to call for help from another staff member, an administrator or the police, depending on what is happening.

Deal appropriately with threats

In most cases, children or youth who make threats don't carry them out. You can therefore use many of the tips listed elsewhere in this section to deal with threats. Your main goal will be to get a young person making threats to focus on the way he or she is feeling, and away from any target of aggression. You can do this by making comments such as, "You must be feeling really bad to say something like that. What's going on?"

It is not always easy to predict whether or not a young person will carry out a threat, even if you have successfully managed the crisis during which the threat was uttered. To determine if the threat is likely to be carried out, think about the past behaviour of the person who made it. Young people who have behaved aggressively, damaged property, set fires, harmed animals or shown other conduct problems in the past are more likely than average to carry out a threat. In such cases, you may need to contact a mental health service provider or the police, depending on the situation.

Always take matters seriously if a young person threatens: 

  • to hurt or kill someone 
  • to hurt or kill himself or herself 
  • to damage or destroy property.

After an incident is over

Once an incident involving aggression is over—and everyone has calmed down—it is time to talk things over with the young people who were involved. You can then help them gain an understanding of what caused the incident and come up with ways to prevent future problems. Here are some tips for working with young people after an incident:

  • Talk to each of the young people in private. Be respectful. Ask them what they thought happened and how the incident may have affected others. Listen to all sides of the story.
  • Ask the young people if they would be willing to hear about what you saw during the incident. Then give them each the chance to comment on whether they think your impressions are correct or not.
  • Talk about your concerns regarding the aggressive behaviour.
  • Follow through with consequences that have been previously discussed, such as a loss of privileges.
  • Explore problem-solving strategies together. Help the young people see what they could have done differently. Point out approaches you may have already talked about. Talk about how they might use those approaches in the future. 
  • If young people ask you to act as a mediator in a conflict with a peer, be available and neutral.

In Addressing aggressive behaviour

Discouraging bullying

Addressing "normal" aggression

 - Preventing aggression

 - Managing aggression

Determining if a young person has a serious problem with aggression

Working with young people who have mental health problems that may include aggressive behaviour 

 - Disruptive behaviour disorders

    - Oppositional defiant disorder

    - Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

    - Conduct disorder

    - Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder