Individual Counselling: Secondary School (Social Worker Strategies)

Reactive Aggressor

Wai's case

During recess, some students were looking at photos of their trip and their excited discussion attracted Wai’s attention. When the class bell rang, the students lowered their voices and waited for the teacher. However, Wai thought they were discussing and laughing at a photo of him falling over, so he confronted them angrily. He shouted and attacked them, asking them to hand over the photo of him falling over, which confused his classmates.

Wai's considerations and actions
  • Misinterprets the external cues: Wai does not consider all of the available information when receiving outside messages; he focuses on certain kinds of sensory information. He only sees his classmates speaking softly and laughing, but does not hear the class bell ring.
  • Cognitive distortion: he thinks that his classmates are circulating a photo of him falling on the floor and are making fun of him.
  • Hostile attributional bias: his classmates are sharing their happy memories of the school picnic, but he thinks they are mocking him.
  • Poor problem-solving skills: when encountering interpersonal conflicts, he can only respond with accusations and aggression.
  • Impulsive: Wai does not wait to find out what is actually happening before attacking his classmates.
  • Agitated emotion: he is unable to control his emotions even in the presence of other classmates, and responds with aggressive behaviour.
  • Attacks everything in the surrounding area: he not only attacks his classmates, but also kicks the chairs around.
  • Stubborn: he insists his classmates delete the photo and assumes they are acting maliciously.
Social network
  • Poor social and communication skills: Wai does not know how to express his own thoughts and feelings.
  • Isolated and socially excluded: his agitated emotions and behaviour make his classmates wary of interacting with him.

Evaluate irrational beliefs

  • Understand how these students perceive social information, and determine what kinds of social cues they fail to perceive.
  • Determine the weaknesses in processing sensory information that distort their social information processing.
  • Evaluate the irrational beliefs underpinning students’ hostile attributional bias

At this evaluation stage, social workers should focus on the weakness in reactive aggressor students’ senses and sensory processing. Obviously, in this case, Wai had a strong visual sense but poor auditory sense, showing that the latter needed attention. After understanding the thoughts generating his agitated emotions, social workers found that Wai tended to overgeneralise his irrational beliefs to a singular belief that his classmates would do harm to him; this is a classic example of the type of hostile attributional bias displayed by a reactive aggressor.

Dispute irrational beliefs

  • Encourage reactive aggressor students to identify their own cognitive blind spots, and help them to explore other possible reasons for the anticipated events.
  • Explain how irrational beliefs lead to anger and impulsivity, and how not to base behaviour solely on subjective interpretations

Social workers can review the details of the incident with the students, and point out how their focusing one form of sensory input was detrimental to their gaining a full and accurate impression of the incident.

It is also important to encourage reactive-aggressor students to consider whether there is evidence to support their negative and extreme thoughts, or whether there are other interpretations. Then, social workers should help the students to perceive the incident using different senses and from new perspectives. Social workers also need to let the students understand that their negative and extreme thoughts will lead to many other negative consequences, to increase their motivation to change.

Finally, social workers should teach reactive-aggressor students self-questioning skills, to help them challenge their own irrational beliefs, and construct new, rational beliefs.

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