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University Counseling Center

The Verbally Aggressive Student

Students may become verbally abusive when they encounter frustrating situations which they believe are beyond their control. Aggression varies from threats to verbal abuse to physical abuse and violence. It is very difficult to predict aggression and violence. They can displace anger and frustration from those situations onto the nearest target. Explosive outbursts or ongoing belligerent, hostile behavior become this student’s way of gaining power and control in an otherwise out-of-control experience. It is important to remember that the student is generally not angry at you personally, but is angry at his/her world. You may have become a convenient object for his/her pent-up frustrations. This behavior is often associated with the use of alcohol and other drugs.

Some indicators of potential violence may include:

  • Paranoia/mistrust
  • An unstable school or vocational history
  • A history of juvenile violence or substance abuse
  • Prior history of violence or abuse
  • Fascination with weapons
  • History of cruelty to animals as a child or adolescent
  • Impulse control problems
  • Fire-starting behaviors

What You Can Do:

  • Assess your level of safety. Call 911 if you feel in danger.
  • Stay calm and set limits.
  • Acknowledge their anger and frustration, e.g., “I hear how angry you are.”
  • Rephrase what they are saying and identify their emotion, e.g., “It appears you are upset because you feel your rights are being violated and nobody will listen.”
  • Reduce stimulation; invite the person to a quiet place if this is comfortable. However, do not invite the person to a quiet place if you fear for your safety. In all instances, ensure that another person is easily accessible to you in the event that the student’s behavior escalates.
  • Enlist the help of a co-worker.
  • Allow them to tell you what is upsetting them.
  • Be directive and firm about the behaviors you will accept, e.g., “Please stand back; you’re too close,” and/or “I cannot listen to you when you are yelling.”
  • Use a time-out strategy (that is, ask the student to reschedule a meeting with you once he/she has calmed down) if the student refuses to cooperate and remains aggressive or agitated.
  • Help the student problem-solve and deal with the real issues when they become calm, e.g., “I’m sorry you are so upset; I’d like to help if I can.”
  • Be honest and genuine; do not placate aggression.

Avoid:

  • Staying in a situation in which you feel unsafe.
  • Meeting alone with the student.
  • Getting into an argument or shouting match.
  • Becoming hostile or punitive yourself, e.g., “You can’t talk to me that way.”
  • Pressing for explanations for their behavior.
  • Ignoring the situation or signs that the student’s anger is escalating.
  • Touching the student, as this may be perceived as aggression or otherwise unwanted attention.
  • Ignoring a gut reaction that you are in danger

Guide Table of Content

Addendum