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The Warning Signs of Violence

Understanding the tactics used by adult manipulators and the behaviors of at-risk youth will help you identify problems before they escalate into emergencies.

With most incidents of violence, the common thread is that the attacker didn’t just “snap.” Usually, he or she exhibited indications of increasing tension that preceded the act. This increasing tension occurs along a continuum, which can be a tactic used to lull an intended victim to let their guard down. Knowing these signs is the first step in protecting yourself from those who seek to harm you.

The continuum has three levels. Level 1 is intimidation, Level 2 is escalation and Level 3 is further escalation (Holmes and Holmes, 2001, see sidebar). The continuum of violence is not smooth or regular. A person can sometimes show signs in different levels of the continuum simultaneously. What you are looking for is a change in their normal behavior, with a “cluster” of behaviors that occur close together, especially after a “trigger” or emotional event.

Know the Tactics of Manipulation

Gavin de Becker’s No. 1 bestseller The Gift of Fear (1998) teaches readers that manipulators often give off signals that we pick up as feelings. We frequently discount these feelings for various reasons, leaving us open to the various manipulations used to get us to let down our guard. De Becker describes seven signs that a person is trying to manipulate you.

  1. Forced teaming: A manipulator gets the intended victim to share a common purpose that doesn’t exist.
  2. Charm and niceness: These traits are abilities, used to gain something for the manipulator.
  3. Too many details: This technique is used by liars to cover up their lies.
  4. Typecasting: The manipulator slightly challenges the victim, who then tries to prove the manipulator wrong.
  5. Loan sharking: The manipulator will do something for the victim and then pressure them to do something in return.
  6. The unsolicited promise: This serves to create a quid pro quo, where the victim feels a certain debt for something done by the manipulator.
  7. Discounting the word “no”: A manipulator who cares little for your wishes will not take “no” for an answer. 

A manipulator is at best uncomfortable to be around and at worst a danger to your well-being. Identify these signs in your everyday interaction with others.  Knowing they are being used against you will cause them to lose power over you, and you will learn to trust your feelings about people.

Children provide a challenge in this area. They have instinctive manipulation skills, but do not have the polished tactics used by adult manipulators. Their brains are not fully developed, so psychological signs are not as reliable.  However, there are behavioral signs that can provide you with early warning signs, or signs that violence is imminent. 

  1. Social withdrawal: This is of more concern when it is out of character for the student.
  2. Excessive feelings of isolation: The student begins to feel significantly isolated from others due to either real or perceived actions on the parts of others.
  3. Excessive feelings of rejection: The rejection may be real or perceived.
  4. Feeling of being picked on/persecuted by others.
  5. The student has been the victim of a violent incident or more than one incident.
  6. The student has little interest in school and is doing poorly academically.
  7. The student expresses violence in an unhealthy or unusual manner, especially when doing so includes school projects.
  8. Uncontrolled anger.
  9. Intolerance for differences and prejudice: Students who are intolerant of difference and/or have strong prejudices can experience heightened levels of risk.
  10. Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting: An easily detected early warning sign is impulsive and regular hitting of other students or even adults.
  11. Students who regularly use intimidation and bullying behaviors are at higher levels of risk.
  12. Students who have been disciplined repeatedly because they fail to follow school policies can be at greater risk.
  13. Students who have exhibited violent and aggressive behavior towards other students, siblings and adults may also need assistance before the problem escalates into even more severe behaviors.
  14. Using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs increases risks for children and youth. Their use increases the risk for poor decision making and judgment, and puts a user at increased risk for getting into trouble or getting injured.
  15. Affiliation with gangs: A very dangerous behavior and clear early warning sign is participation in gang activity.
  16. Inappropriate access to, possession and use of firearms and other weapons: This must be immediately addressed.
  17. Threats of violence (Dorn & Dorn, 2008): Making verbal, written and sometimes even gestures implying impending violence are early warning signs of particular concern, especially when accompanied by other behaviors.

The warning signs in children that violence is imminent include serious and violent fighting with peers and family; severe destruction of property; severe rage for seemingly minor reasons; detailed threats of lethal violence; possession/use of firearms and other weapons; and self-injurious behaviors or threats/attempts at suicide (Dorn & Dorn, 2008).

Learn to Trust Your Instincts

The continuum of violence helps us determine the seriousness of the signs of violence. These signs are psychological in nature, so you may see these signs in your place of worship, in your family or even on the street. Trust your instincts. If someone’s behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, there is usually a reason for it.  

The seven survival signals from de Becker can help you know when a stranger is manipulating you. Practice identifying these techniques, and learn to trust your feelings. When youth are involved, the goal of identifying the warning signs in a student is to get help for them, not as a means to exclude them from the rest of the student body.

Learn the signs, and know what you will do if you notice them. Knowing what to do will make it more likely that you will take action when someone is on the continuum of violence. 

Ask yourself: if you were a campus official, what would you do if a co-worker showed these signs? A student? How would you feel if you had this knowledge and said nothing, and your co-worker committed an act of violence? When it comes to this type of behavior, these signs can indicate a life-and-death situation in the making.

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Steve Satterly is the director of transportation and school safety for CSC Southern Hancock County in Indiana.

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