Understanding Violence and Dealing with It at Personal and Group Levels

Odilia Van Manen-Rojnic
"NADOMAK SUNCA" Humanitarian Organisation
Oprtalj, Croatia


Within today's society there hardly seems to be any work field where one is not, at least from time to time, confronted with violence. We who chose to work in the field of care provision for children and youth usually do this out of positive motivations. We may have, for instance, the wish to help children overcome stress and trauma and to stimulate them to fully develop their potential. We might be aware that somewhere during the process we will be confronted with violent situations in some form, may it be through confrontation with traumatic pasts or backgrounds of the children and youth we work with or with their acting-out as a reaction to these situations. Hardly, however, our motivation will be to confront ourselves with violent situations on a regular basis. We do not wish violence and aggression to occur and will try to avoid such situations. When confrontation cannot be avoided, we might experience that our reactions determine for an important part whether or not the violent situation will escalate. We will find ourselves exposed not only to unwanted external aggression but possibly also to unexpected and unwelcome inner negative or even aggressive reactions and feelings. Confronting ourselves with these feelings in a perfectly honest and open way can be painful and confronting but is essential in order to develop a constructive attitude in dealing with violence.

Coming to constructive solutions when confronted with violence not only demands understanding of the mechanisms of the external attacks but also, and maybe most importantly, involves learning to deal with one's own "negative" feelings and reactions.

Following new insights and the needs of modern society, coping with violence and aggression is becoming more and more included in educational programs for future care providers. Also, supervision and other forms of "caring for carers" are more and more regarded as essential parts of a well-functioning care system. Those professionals who did not receive such training and who are working in a not-so-ideal care system will have to search for solutions through self-help and self-education. This article is partly the résumé of such an attempt.

Which forms of violence can confront us?

In my experience as a professional foster carer, I have met several forms of violence and aggression. As the majority of children placed within our family had behavioral disorders, obvious forms of aggression like shouting, fighting, threatening and abusive language were common for individual children, mostly during the first period of placement.

Aggression, however, can appear in many different forms and disguises: gossiping, intimidation, humiliating and mobbing; simulating illness, auto-mutilation and suicide threats; attempts at blackmail and manipulation. These, especially when performed indirectly and subtly, I often found more difficult to handle than the first examples of (direct) aggression.

Now, how does one react in such situations? Do acts of aggression provoke more violence, or does one always manage to avoid escalation? Obviously not. Apart from excesses of physical abuse, which still seem to occur far too often in care situations and which will not be commented on here, most of us have experienced situations in which more subtle forms of aggression by care providers towards children and youth were being practiced: restricting and sanctioning, diminishing self-esteem with accusations or insinuations, threatening punishment measures, and giving too much or too little attention.

Care providers can also be confronted with aggression from sources other than the children they care for. They can, for example, be threatened by shortage of means, by an inadequate care system, by manipulation of persons who have the power of executing such a system, or by intimidating and/or mobbing from colleagues.

Provocation and Manipulation

Of the many different forms in which violence can present itself, those which are a real threat to knocking down the boundaries of one's self-control are - in my opinion - provocation and manipulation.

Many children in care have gone through numerous bad experiences regarding human relationships. Disappointment and bad examples often raise a tendency of negative expectations. Children and youth with attachment and behavioral disorders tend to see caregivers as persons opposed to them. Therefore, care providers with sincerely positive intentions can be seen by such children as suspicious and will be exposed to a long series of "tests," of which the following can be examples:

  • Twisting the meaning of words in order to hurt, make fun of, or simply provoke
  • Insisting on (conscious or unconscious) search for conflict
  • Other persons, often the caregivers, being provided with the identity of "enemy"
  • Endangering the positive identity of others in order to enhance one's self-esteem
  • Violation of appointments, rules, structures, and everything that provides a certain sense of security

Manipulative persons may experience their power through violating rules. This can mean, therefore, that more rules for them represent more provocations to violate. (This statement is by no means meant as a plea for absence of all rules and boundaries. We all know that failing to set clear boundaries can have disastrous consequences. When applying structure, the mentioned examples above can help when considering all possible consequences of such measures.)

It is not easy to prepare oneself for such situations, as unexpectedness is one of the characteristics of manipulation. When one is unexpectedly provoked by intimidation, untrue accusations, or insults, one's first reaction can be shock or a strong urge to run away from the provocative person. One could start to argue, ask others for assistance, get upset, or lose control in a different manner. In cases where more persons are present, the whole group can become upset as a result of provocation.

But, of course, the purpose of this all is the reaction that follows the provocation. When one reacts strongly and loses control, this, and not the original provocation, will be the thing that will stay most vigorously in people's memories. When one succeeds in remaining calm, this calmness will affect the group. When one succeeds in not reacting, the game is over.

The same goes for situations where one is being manipulated into doing something against one's will. The manipulator will never ask for what he or she wants directly. Instead of feeling irritated or used, one can ask, "What do you want me to do?" and, again, the game is over.

A subtle strategy used is when people manipulate towards becoming "best friends" with one with the aim of becoming entitled to certain privileges from this position. When one denies this "right" to privileges, terrible scenes can follow upon this "unforgivable betrayal of loyalty." It is sometimes not an easy task to say no and stay calm.

What these examples try to show is that as soon as one reacts to aggression in a manner which involves strong emotion or contra violence, an opposite to the original provocation or "enemy" position is established, which forms the best conditions for a conflict to escalate. Not letting oneself be provoked away from the objective middle position means absence of an enemy and therefore no opportunity for conflict.

However, calmness and tolerance do not work when they are a superficial act. True inner convincement is a strong power. Research has shown that care providers with a non-violent life attitude have less than half the chance of becoming attacked than those who stated that they would fight back.

Recognizing one's emotional reactions to violence

It does not seem necessary to add more to what has already been said and written during the past decades about the importance of a basic attitude of tolerance, empathy and unconditional loving acceptance when working and living with children and youth with psycho-social developmental disorders.

The examples above and, presumably, our own experience show us how difficult it is to maintain this essential attitude of calmness, lovingness and tolerance when involved in a violent situation. However, before we have the right to expect constructive behavior from others, we will have to develop it ourselves. To be able to do so, we need to understand the mechanisms of our own emotional reactions, especially those connected to violence.

According to J. Verhulst, the following reactions to violence are typical for human beings:


The emotions which appear as a reaction to the incident are being suppressed. They remain hidden in the unconscious and may suddenly reappear, sometimes after a long period--for instance, when one encounters the person who provoked them.


One is ignoring the fact that a risk for violent attacks exists, thus hoping that the person(s) at risk will behave accordingly. It is an unconscious attempt to "bend" reality according to one's imagination.


Instead of looking at one's own weaknesses, one is seeing them magnified in others. This often happens when overwhelmed by strong emotions. Projection can catalyze more violence. Sometimes a whole group projects on one person, which is then called bullying or mobbing.


One is finding rational excuses for mistakes made by oneself or others, like saying, "That tantrum was a good way of unloading all the stress."


One is reacting aggressively upon aggression. Thus, one's feelings of fear are being diminished, but escalation of the situation is likely to happen.


One is withdrawing into a "lower" level of behavior--for instance, starting to cry.


One is trying to avoid violent situations at all cost. Thus, a solution to the problem is being postponed or delegated to other caregivers.

All these types of reactions are natural, sometimes practical and, in principle, not good or bad. To avoid that they become automatic and repetitive, one should become aware of their mechanisms and learn to recognize their sometimes very subtle patterns within oneself.

Mastering one's emotions and handling them constructively

Many methods exist to help us become more aware of our emotions and (unconscious) reactions and to learn to handle them. The following are just three examples out of a vast choice:

  • Focusing
  • Rational Analysis
  • Transforming

All three methods are meant to help develop positive interaction with children, youth and other persons we work with. They by no means have the pretension to be representative, but for me, they have proven to be very helpful.

Focusing was inspired by humanistic psychology and client-centered therapy. It has been developed by E.T. Gendlin, who defined it as "facing your inner experience without analyzing it and transforming it by paying close attention" (1996). When one faces one's emotions by concentrating on what is experienced through the body, "shifts" can occur, which can make the problem look different, make the body less tense, and show unexpected answers. Focusing consists of the following six steps, which should all together evolve in one fluent process:

  1. Making room
    Focus on your body and ask yourself: "What is happening in my life right now?" How does your body answer? Which parts of the body do you feel? Your chest? Your stomach? When you tend to lose yourself in feelings or sensations, take a "step back" to be able to observe what happens.
  2. Experiencing emotion
    Now choose to concentrate on one problem. Again: don't go into it, take a step back. Do not think of all the details which compose the problem - try to experience the vague, over-all sensation. Focus on the place where you feel it.
  3. Defining the tool
    Let the vague sensation become more defined by watching a word, sentence or image emerge from it. Do several possibilities appear? Hold that which fits best.
  4. Resounding
    Go to-and-fro between the experienced sensation and the word or image. Are they in harmony? Do they resound? Does your body tell you that it fits? Keep focusing. If you feel that the sensation changes, let it happen and let the word(s) or image adjust itself until it again completely expresses the emotion.
  5. Questioning
    As you continue to focus on the sensation/emotion which you have now expressed with words or an image, ask: "What is 'inside' the problem? What actually defines it?" Do not expect a rational answer. Keep focusing. Let different answers come and go until one appears that causes a shift, a certain sense of relief.
  6. Receiving
    Receive the shift in a friendly, open way. Observe what has happened, even when only a slight change has occurred. With time and practice, changes will come more easily.

This process offers the possibility to address problems which cannot be fully understood with the mind. When practiced regularly, it will be of help to react more adequately to acts of violence.

Rational Analysis is a way to direct one's behavior and reactions through clear rational insights. As shown through the examples of possible reactions to violence (see above), one's primary reactions are usually emotional and not consciously directed. This method, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, helps to gain more control over one's emotions and reactions by consciously applying cognitive skills.

The starting point is the idea that emotions which follow the violent event are often more influenced by one's mind than by the event itself. The mind can start interpreting the situation by creating (irrational) assumptions. It can be influenced by prejudices and tend to think in absolute terms, as "always," "never," "bad," and "good." These thinking patterns have a strong impact on one's emotions, which again influence the way one reacts on the original event. And in the end, one's reaction determines for a large part whether or not the situation will stay in control (see scheme below).

When, for example, a person shouts an insult at you (A), this can provoke feelings of hurt and shock (C) but also thinking patterns, like, "I can't take this!" or "This person has no right to say that to me!" (B) These thoughts can strongly increase the original feelings of hurt and can catalyze the development of anger in yourself (C). This combination can cause you to act out your feelings of frustration and anger in such a way that you might, for instance, raise your voice or apply sanctions (D). This, again, can provoke a renewed reaction by the person who started the event. It can increase his or her violent behavior, by which the situation will easily escalate (E).

To change and "re-program" one's thinking patterns (B), we can put the question "why" to all assumptions created by the mind. This would change the first assumption into the question "Why can't I take this?", which can be answered in the following manner: although it makes me unhappy to receive negative remarks, I have to accept them as being part of life. I have received sharp criticism in the past and managed to survive. The second assumption would make the following question: "Why does this person have no right to say that to me?" to which one could answer that this person, like ourselves, has the right to freedom of expression.

In this way, one's thoughts and opinions (B) will become more objective and will cause a re-interpretation of one's emotions (C) which will increase the ability to control one's reactions (D), which will again have a positive effect on the consequences (E)

As goes for all methods, Rational Analysis needs practicing in order to develop skills and to gain results.

Transforming is, according to G. Schuur, about transforming the emotional energy that is being catalyzed by a violent event and applying it in a constructive way. When, for instance, a situation occurs where a child threatens to hit you, this can trigger a reaction of anger or fear or a combination of both. The energy that emerges through these emotions can be used in different ways. You can act according to your feelings of anger and fear - or you can use it to make a step you would not make so easily in an ordinary situation because it requires courage and convincement. In this situation, you could reach out to the child and make clear that he or she can communicate his or her feelings with you and that you are open to offer help. Thus, the energy which could easily have caused the event to escalate is positively used and transformed to a "higher" level. You have not only succeeded in offering a positive way out of a negative situation and thereby raised your capacity as a caregiver, but you also made a step in the establishment of a human relationship.

Succeeding in transforming emotional energy, which was triggered by a violent event, into a constructive deed is a generally rewarding experience. In this sense, I would like to conclude this article. Although, as mentioned in the introduction, one hardly welcomes confrontations with violence in whatever form, which seems to have become more and more common in everyday work situations, one can as well accept this fact and try to make the best of it. An unfamiliar and at first unwelcome experience can be transformed into an important learning opportunity that opens possibilities to enhance one's skills as well as develop one's personality and thereby one's ability to help and understand others.

Odilia van Manen-Rojnic


With special thanks to Mrs. Christine Van Damme. Her unpublished paper, "Omgaan met agressie: ontwerp van een bijscholingsprogramma voor psychiatrisch verpleegkundigen" ("Dealing with aggression: concept for further training of psychiatric nurses"), Brussels, 1989, was very helpful for this article.

Schuur, G. (1991). Omgaan met agressie: Geweldloosheid als antwoord op een psychiatrisch
probleem (Dealing with aggression: Non-violence as an answer to a psychiatric
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Bernstein, A.J., Rozen, S.C. (1989). Dinosaur Brains: dealing with all those impossible people at
Ballentine Books.

Blair, T. (1991). "Assaultive Behavior." Journal of Psychosocial Nursing. vol.29.

Gendlin, E.T. (1996). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: a manual of the experiential method.
New York, Guilford Press.

Ellis, A. (2001). Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors: New Directions for
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
Prometheus Books.

Verhulst, J. (1992). Sociaal vaardig: praktijkboek voor dienstverleners. Groningen (Socially
capable: a handbook for care providers).



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