What to do when?

A nonviolent way of dealing with aggression



A frequently asked question is how to apply Gentle Teaching when there is an escalation and a person becomes aggressive. The essence of Gentle Teaching is that all our actions as caregiver are focused on establishing such a relationship with a person, that it will be possible to guide him through a stressful moment in a gentle and loving way, so we can prevent harmful situations to occur. Also we try, by improving the Quality of Life, to reduce the moments of frustrations which can lead to an escalation. But nevertheless, it can – especially in the beginning – sometimes happen that we can’t prevent an escalation and that a person may harm himself or others.


Types of aggression

The four most important types of aggression are: self-injurious behavior, verbal aggression, breaking/throwing objects and physical aggression. In most trainings on how to deal with aggression, the main focus is on physical aggression and from the perspective of the caregiver: how can we prevent the caregiver to be hurt? There is nothing wrong with the goal not to get hurt, but we shouldn’t forget that every type of aggression always indicates that the person with special needs doesn’t feel well. At that moment he needs our support the most, and he is the least open to us and our presence.

In the training Nonviolence in the face of aggression, developed within the framework of Gentle Teaching, we focus on all four types of aggression, with the focus:

  • How can we help the person to feel relaxed again as soon as possible?
  • How can we prevent in a nonviolent way that the person himself, bystanders, or we as caregiver get hurt?


The meaning of aggression

When an escalation results in verbal or physical violence, we usually speak about ‘aggression’. Strictly spoken this word is not applicable with people with special needs. Usually aggression is understood as violent behavior with the intention to harm others, or to force others to do something for you. This is a wrong assumption. Aggression is an expression of stress and frustration, and the lack of inner control or impotence to express this in any other way. A person is not aggressive because he wants you to notice that he is frustrated; he is aggressive because he frustrated. He is not aggressive to force you to give him a third cup of coffee; he is aggressive because he is frustrated that doesn’t get his third cup.  


Sometimes it seems that the actions are well thought of and intentional, but that is the result of conditioned life-experiences, and not a result of conscious thinking. The central question therefor is not whether or not the person ‘knows’ what he is doing, but if he has enough self-control not to do it. In other words: is he emotionally sufficiently grown-up and stable, and are there no deeper vulnerabilities which give this uncontrollable impulse.

It’s important that we look at aggression from the right perspective, because that largely determines how we react on it. If we see it as functional, intentional behavior, we tend to disapprove of the behavior and respond in a domineering or even violent way. If we see it as an expression of inner frustration and incompetence, as a sign that the special person doesn’t feel well, it will evoke loving feelings and we will try to help him, by comforting him, by taking away the source of the frustration, or by helping him with what he is doing.


Causes of aggression

There are mainly two causes of aggression. First has to do with inner mental and emotional processes, like when the person is going through a psychosis, when he suffers from dementia, has traumatic memories or is born with vulnerabilities which give rise to severe emotional desperation.

The second type of causes have to do with stimuli which lead to frustration. Mostly these stimuli are external, like rules and limitations (not getting three cups of coffee), or unaccepted or threatening events. But is can also be inner physical stimuli, like pain, illness or a physical impairment.

Both types of causes can reinforce each other. When you already have to carry a heave emotional or mental load, you are easier frustrated by external events or stimuli. Use of alcohol or drugs can have an amplifying effect, because these substances reduce the self-control.

When the cause of escalation of stress is mainly due to inner emotional or mental processes, the relationship with the person is what you have to depend on. If the escalation is (also) caused by external stimuli, you can also try to reduce these stimuli, so the source of the frustration is gone.


Moving with... and redirecting

To get a person out of an escalating stress, you first have to enter into his world by moving along with him for a while until there is reciprocal contact, and then you try to redirect him into your warm and relaxing energy. If you already use Gentle Teaching in supporting the person, you may have used the technique of stretching to teach him also on a high level of stress to be open for your contact and redirection to a lower energy level.

This begins with making contact when the person feels relaxed (point A). You make safe and reciprocal contact, and when you feel the person is open to your guidance, you gradually create some excitement until you reach point B, where you intensify the contact and redirect the person back to relaxation. In the beginning B is at a low energy level, but after some time you can increase the level. But be sure you don’t get beyond C, because that is the breakpoint. When the stress passes C, the contact is broken and the stress cannot be redirected anymore.


This preparation is a prerequisite to be able to make contact with the person when he is in high stress and to comfort him. You first make contact by moving along with the person: with a reassuring posture, warm gazes and gentle words you express your understanding for how he feels. You move along with him and when you feel you have reciprocal contact you try to redirect him and take him with you in your own warm energy.


It’s important that this isn’t just a verbal interaction. You combine your gentle words with a warm gaze and – if possible - warm physical contact. For instance by holding a hand of the person or holding your hand on his shoulder. With this touch you don’t only have an extra point of contact, but you can also feel the physical tension of the person. If you hold his hand, it also is a kind of protection for yourself. As long as you are holding hands, he won’t use the hand for hitting you.


This is one of the reasons why it’s so important that in daily moments of contact with the person you teach him to feel good with warm physical contact. He first has to learn that your touches are symbols nonviolence, protection and help.


Being aware of your emotions

When the stress of the person tends to escalate, also your own emotions and feelings will intensify. If you are used looking at the feelings and the needs of the person, you will notice when his feeling of powerlessness and misery are increasing, and this will arouse strong feelings of love and compassion within you. This will have a de-escalating effect.


If you are not yet stable in focusing on the feelings of the person instead of on his behaviors, his increasing stress probably will evoke feelings like anger, fear or powerlessness in you. And then the energy exchange between you and the person can enhance the escalation. You can’t expect the person to stop this process; it depends fully on you.


Anger is relatively ease to work with. Anger usually arises when we have negative judgments about the impact of a behavior, and that these judgments withhold us to see the problem the person has; the real problem which is the cause of the escalation. This can be enhanced when we overestimate the person and believe he is doing it on purpose in order to get what he wants or to hurt others. We then fully ignore that maybe he has a limited emotional strength or that he has special vulnerabilities due to which he has no self-control. If you can, during the moment of the escalation, focus again on the feelings of the person and feel his suffering and his powerlessness, your energy of anger will transform in energy of compassion.


Feeling powerlessness is harder to deal with than anger, because as caregiver you want everything to go well. You want the best for the person, you want the best for the other persons, and you want to enjoy your work yourself. And if you can’t manage that all, you feel powerless. To stay out of this pitfall, you have to learn to accept the reality of life that you can’t always influence or prevent everything. You can only do your best, nothing more.


If you don’t succeed in letting go feelings of powerlessness, they can turn into anger towards the person, or feeling insecure or fearful. Undoubtedly the person will feel this, and it will enhance his own feeling of powerlessness.

Accepting that you can’t influence everything doesn’t mean that you should become nonchalant. You take the responsibility for what you can do given the circumstances and your abilities. For example by focusing again on the feelings of the person and see what you can do to help and comfort him.


Fear is always a result of feeling powerlessness, feeling that you can’t handle the situation and that you may get harmed. Fear is an important emotions; it’s a signal that you have to be alert. Be aware of your fear, but don’t let the fear control you. Stay in charge over your emotions and your actions.


Fear arises when you focus on the actions of the person and mentally anticipate on the ‘worst case scenario’. Like with anger, you can enter into an energy-exchange between you and the person which enhances the escalation.  Therefor also with fear it’s important to focus on the feelings of the person, with only a little bit of attention to what he may do. That last part is important because of course you have to stay alert to possible aggression.


Connecting with the feelings of the person isn’t only de-escalating. There is a second reason. There is always a little time between the rising of emotions and the acting-out in possible aggression. If you only look at the behavior of the person, you will miss the time you need to act de-escalating or to protect yourself in a proper way.



It needs a lot of practice and experience to be able to keep focusing on the feelings and the powerlessness of the person and to keep feeling loving towards him, when the stress reaches a high level. There are some good practices you can do

  1. Feeling grounded in your own body
  2. Becoming aware of your emotions
  3. Evoking loving feelings
  4. Letting go anger
  5. Letting go the feeling of powerlessness
  6. Transforming anger into compassion
  7. Being in charge of your fear
  8. Avoiding frustration


The best way to prevent aggression is to avoid – if possible – frustrations by reducing the number of demands and restrictions to a minimum. Sometimes it also means that we don’t get into a struggle when a person wants something that isn’t usual, but yet possible. If a person gets frustrated because we do not give him a third cup of coffee, we can decide to give him his coffee.


Do we then teach him that he always gets what he wants by getting angry, and will he become angry more often to force you? Nee, this is an obversion of the reality: he becomes angry out of frustration because he doesn’t get the coffee he wants. The only thing we may teach him by not giving the coffee is that it always needs a fight to get something. We create the fighter by not giving in.


Our choice to give the coffee is not to comply because we are afraid and we don’t want him to become aggressive. It’s a moral choice; we do not want to frustrate him. Moreover this choice results in a peaceful atmosphere that makes it possible for us to work on deepening the relationship. Therewith in the future we can better support him when there are un-hoped for frustrating moments when we are really not able to give him what he wants.


Absorbing violence

Despite all our efforts to prevent frustrations, or to de-escalate when stress is increasing, we can’t always prevent that the person goes through his breakpoint (see figure) and becomes aggressive. We then have to find a nonviolent way to ‘dissolve’ the aggression and relax the person again. In the theory on nonviolence this is called ‘absorbing violence’ (Wolfensberger, 2007). This means that we try get the attention towards us and consciously accept the violence. You accept that it may hurt, but you are aware that by your posture and the way you protect yourself from being harmed, you will dissolve the violent. 


In order to prevent that we will be really harmed by the aggression, it will be necessary that we are trained in nonviolent techniques for self protection. That means that both verbal as physical we try to avoid doing things the person might feel as violent, and at the same time we try to absorb the violence of the person. If we would try to immobilize the person, either with threatened words or physical, that would be felt as violent.


We use these physical technique only when there is a real danger that somebody gets physical harm. So we don’t do it when a person is verbally aggressive or when he is breaking objects. If a person wants to throw with objects, we make sure that bystanders are out of the way, so no personal harm can be done. If the person throws big objects, like furniture, we can try to hold the object (not the person) and shadow the movements.


If the escalation of stress results in self injurious behavior, we do not protect the person by holding and immobilizing him, but by using our hands to catch the blow. This way we absorb the aggression.


When a person is aggressive towards us we have two options. The first is to ignore the aggression and the second is to use nonviolence techniques for self-protection.


Ignoring the aggression means that we tolerate the aggression for this moment, while we try to comfort the person with warm eye-contact and gentle words. We also try to continue the dialogue or activity with the person. Ignoring the aggression is the most direct way to absorb it and to teach the person that he can feel unconditionally safe with you.


It’s an individual decision of a caregiver to ignore the aggression. If your colleagues can do it and you can’t, you don’t have to feel pushed doing it. This would be crossing your borders. You only do it when you see the benefit of it and feel self-confident enough to go through it. And if it was good for you yesterday, it doesn’t have to feel good for you today.


If you can’t tolerate the aggression, you use techniques for nonviolent self-protection, so you don’t get hurt. These techniques also absorb the aggression, but there always is a risk that in spite of your intentions, the person can interpret it as rejecting him of as violent.


No matter which option you choose, it’s important that the person can feel your self-confidence. If he feels you actually feel insecure or afraid, this will enhance the feelings of the person.

When there is a conflict with aggression amongst the persons you serve, you first try to get the attention of the person who is most domineering in the conflict, thereby from then it is between you and this person. Then you use the principles described above.



Dealing with aggression in a nonviolent way is very intensive and can sometimes take quite some time before the person calmed down. Therefor it is important that you feel supported by the presence of colleagues. This doesn’t mean that the colleagues are directly involved in the interaction. Due to old memories the person can interpret a ‘confrontation’ with more caregivers as threatening and violent.  But you can ask a colleague to take over from you when you get tired or when it becomes hard for you to control your emotions.


Only when there is severe self-injurious behavior and you are not able to protect the person against self-harm by yourself, you can ask a colleague to help you.


Closing the incident

Aggression always has a big impact on people; not only for the person and you, but also for the bystanders. It is important to close an incident in such a way that everybody can go on afterwards.


Closing begins with yourself. Reflect on the incident and how you felt and acted. Be aware of any disturbing emotions like anger, fear or powerlessness that you may feel afterwards. If you still have these feelings, see how you can let them go. If afterwards you have the feeling you did something wrong, just see this as a good learning point and not as self-criticism. Accept the reality of the past moment and be proud on yourself that you tried to be nonviolent. Next time better …


Also try to go on with the person as safe and gentle as always. Try to prevent that the person feel guilty about his deeds. Let him feel that you don’t blame him anything. If the person wants to talk about it, don’t talk about what he did, but about how he felt and how you can help him feel better next time. Don’t ask for apologizes or make the person promise he won’t do it again. If you do that, you leave the incident with an open end.


The bystanders also need your attention in the closing of the incident. Help them express their feelings, but do this in such a way that the person who was aggressive doesn’t become stigmatized within the group.



We talked a lot about aggression, while we actually try to avoid using this word. It points to the disruptive character of the behavior and distracts us from the real problem: the inner stress and lack of self-control of the person and the causes of the stress. This problem we have to solve.

From that perspective we do not choose to combat violence with violence, but we choose for the path of nonviolence. It’s a moral choice, but also a choice based on the logic that we can only stop violence on the long term, when we are able to create a culture of peace.