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Does ABA Therapy Work for Aggression & Impulse Control?

Does ABA Therapy Work for Aggression & Impulse Control?

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What is ABA Therapy?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy treatment is a therapeutic approach that focuses on improving specific behaviors by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable components. ABA therapy is based on the principles of behaviorism, namely operant conditioning and the use of incentives and punishments to change behavior.1

The therapy is widely used to treat individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Still, it can also treat other conditions such as anxiety disorders, ADHD, and mood disorders. In addition, ABA therapy can be delivered in various settings, including mental health treatment clinics, schools, and in-home.

ABA therapy aims to promote good behavior and reduce undesirable behavior by utilizing positive reinforcement strategies, like rewards, to encourage the desired actions. On the other hand, unwanted behavior is discouraged by withholding reinforcement. The therapy also involves monitoring the individual’s behavior and assessing progress to make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.

ABA therapy is typically delivered by trained professionals, such as licensed behavioral therapists or Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs).

To effectively address challenging behaviors in individuals, a thorough assessment is conducted to identify specific areas that need improvement. This assessment may involve observations, interviews with family members and caregivers, and standardized tests. Based on the assessment, goals are established to help improve the individual’s behavior, such as increasing communication or reducing problematic behaviors, such as aggression.

To achieve these goals, a treatment plan is developed that includes specific techniques and interventions, such as prompting, reinforcement, and shaping. ABA therapy can be customized to meet the specific needs of each individual receiving treatment. Through this process, individuals can receive targeted support to improve their behavior and overall quality of life.2

Athena Care offers both in-clinic and at home ABA therapy.

Insurance may be able to help cover the cost of therapy. Find out if your insurance provider can help with the costs by filling in our confidential insurance verification form below.

ABA Therapy, Aggression & Impulse Control

Aggression is behavior intended to cause harm or injury to another person, animal, or object. It can take many forms, such as physical, verbal, or social aggression. In addition, it can be triggered by various factors, such as frustration, fear, or a desire to control a situation. Aggression is one of the most frequent challenges parents of autistic children face.3

Contrastingly, the capacity to control one’s impulses, cravings, or temptations to accomplish a desired objective or end is known as impulse control. It entails self-control and managing emotions and conduct, especially under trying circumstances. However, for certain people, especially those who suffer from specific neurological or mental conditions like ADHD or bipolar disorder, impulse control can be challenging to manage.4

Poor impulse control can lead to aggression. Difficulty controlling emotions and impulses may cause individuals to act aggressively in response to a triggering situation. By teaching patients how to manage their behavior and emotions under difficult circumstances, ABA therapy can aid in developing better impulse control. Learning to control impulses can help reduce aggressive behavior.

Here are some bullet point signs of aggression:

  • Verbal aggression, such as yelling, insulting, or threatening
  • Physical aggression, such as hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing objects
  • Social aggression, such as excluding others or spreading rumors
  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior, such as becoming more irritable or agitated
  • Difficulty calming down or regulating emotions in response to a triggering situation
  • Exhibiting violent or destructive behaviors towards people or objects
  • Exhibiting controlling behaviors towards others, such as demanding obedience or manipulating situations to get their way
  • Exhibiting behaviors associated with bullying, such as picking on or intimidating others
  • Engaging in risky behaviors that may harm themselves or others
  • Using drugs or alcohol to cope with difficult emotions or situations

Aggression and impulse control are complex behaviors that various factors can influence. Comprehensive behavioral health assessments can help identify the underlying causes of aggression and impulse control problems and inform the development of effective treatment strategies, such as ABA therapy.

Below are some influential factors that may contribute to the development of aggressive behavior, including:

  • Biological factors: Genetics, brain chemistry, and neurological disorders can all affect aggression and impulse control. For instance, those who suffer from certain neurological or mental conditions, such as ADHD or bipolar disorder, may be more prone to aggression and struggle with impulse control. According to experts, aggression is associated with heightened amygdala activity and lower prefrontal cortex activity.5 In addition, aggressive behavior can also result from brain lesions arising from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.6
  • Environmental factors: Environmental factors can also influence aggression and impulse control issues, such as trauma or exposure to violence. For instance, children who grow up in hostile or unstable environments may be more prone to exhibit aggressive tendencies.
  • Learning and conditioning: Aggressive behavior can be learned through social conditioning, where individuals learn to associate aggressive behavior with rewards or positive outcomes. For example, a child who learns they can get what they want by throwing a temper tantrum may be likelier to continue exhibiting that behavior.
  • Cognitive factors: Aggression and impulse control issues can also be caused by mental factors such as poor problem-solving skills or difficulty regulating emotions. People who struggle with managing their feelings and impulsivity may be more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior.

If you or a loved one is dealing with aggression, ABA therapy can help. A functional assessment is one of the first steps in ABA therapy for aggressive behavior, which helps identify the underlying reasons or functions of said behavior. Once the root cause is understood, interventions can be designed to address it.7

In addition to identifying the root cause, ABA interventions for aggression help individuals learn new, more appropriate behaviors to replace aggressive behaviors. For example, one way to address the issue is by providing training on effective communication techniques or equipping individuals with coping mechanisms to deal with challenging emotions or circumstances.

Positive reinforcement is another crucial aspect of ABA therapy. By using rewards and praise to encourage desired behavior and discourage aggressive behavior, individuals can learn to associate positive outcomes with appropriate behavior.

Another technique used in aggression ABA therapy is behavioral momentum. This involves introducing a series of simple, easy-to-complete tasks followed by a more difficult task, which helps increase the likelihood of success and reduce the possibility of aggression.

Finally, ABA interventions for physical aggression also focus on generalization and maintenance. This means that the skills and behaviors learned in therapy are practiced and reinforced in various settings to ensure they become a permanent part of the individual’s repertoire.

Overall, ABA therapy can be a helpful and effective approach for managing aggressive behavior and promoting positive change.

Benefits of ABA Therapy for Aggression & Impulse Control

  • Provides a data-driven approach to identify the function or purpose of the aggressive behavior
  • Develops individualized strategies to reduce or replace the negative behavior with more appropriate alternatives
  • Helps individuals learn new communication skills or coping strategies to manage difficult emotions or situations
  • Uses positive reinforcement techniques to encourage the desired behavior and discourage the aggressive behavior
  • Helps individuals generalize and maintain behavior changes across different settings and situations
  • Teaches individuals new problem-solving and decision-making skills
  • Helps improve the individual’s quality of life and interpersonal relationships
  • Provides a collaborative approach involving the individual, family members, and caregivers in the development and implementation of treatment strategies
  • Can lead to a reduction in stress and emotional distress for the individual and their caregivers
  • Can lead to an increase in independence and self-esteem for the individual

Goals of ABA Therapy for Aggression & Impulse Control

  • To identify the function or purpose of the aggressive behavior
  • To develop individualized strategies to reduce or replace the behavior with more appropriate alternatives
  • To teach the individual new communication skills or coping strategies to manage difficult emotions or situations
  • To increase the individual’s self-awareness and ability to recognize and regulate their emotions
  • To increase the individual’s ability to make appropriate decisions and solve problems effectively
  • To teach the individual to ask for help or support when needed
  • To improve the individual’s social skills and ability to interact appropriately with others
  • To generalize and maintain the behavior changes across different settings and situations
  • To increase the individual’s independence and quality of life
  • To reduce the frequency and severity of aggressive behavior
  • To increase the individual’s sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem

When is ABA Therapy Right for You?

Applied behavior analysis therapy may be a good fit for individuals who exhibit problematic behaviors, such as aggression and impulsivity, and would benefit from learning new skills to manage their behavior and emotions. ABA therapy is often used to treat individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Still, it can also be effective for individuals with other developmental disabilities or behavioral disorders.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding if ABA therapy is right for you or your loved one:

  • The severity and frequency of the problematic behaviors: ABA therapy may be a good fit for individuals with significant and persistent problem behaviors that interfere with their daily life and relationships.
  • The individual’s age and developmental level: ABA therapy can be used with individuals of all ages and developmental levels, from young children to adults.
  • The individual’s ability to participate in therapy: ABA therapy requires active participation from the individual and support and involvement from family members or caregivers.
  • The availability of qualified ABA providers: ABA therapy should be provided by a qualified and licensed professional with experience treating aggression and impulse control problems.
  • The individual’s goals and needs: ABA therapy can be tailored to the individual’s specific goals and needs and can target a range of behaviors and skills, such as social skills, communication, and self-regulation.

Although ABA therapy may not be the best option for everyone, it is a very effective tool for modifying negative behaviors in individuals with aggression and impulse control problems. It may be a good fit for those motivated to learn new skills and improve their quality of life.8 Working with a qualified ABA provider in Tennessee is important to determine if ABA therapy is the right treatment option for you or your loved one.

Success Rates & Outlook of ABA Treatment for Aggression

ABA therapy for aggressive behavior is effective and can be personalized to fit individual needs. It can improve behavior, emotions, and quality of life. However, success rates depend on several factors, including age and length/intensity of treatment. Still, the outlook is generally positive with early intervention.

In people with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, research has shown that ABA therapy can effectively reduce aggression and other problematic behaviors.9 ABA therapy may also effectively reduce aggression in individuals with other conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, conduct disorder, and mood disorders. However, more research is needed to fully understand the effectiveness of ABA therapy for these populations.

Research has also indicated that ABA alone may reduce aggressive behaviors in many cases.10 For example, a 2011 review of 27 studies found that ABA interventions for aggression were successful in reducing a child’s aggression and anxiety.11 Additionally, a 2012 study recommended that children with autism receive at least 25 hours of ABA therapy sessions per week to see the most benefit.12 These statistics highlight the importance of ABA interventions for physical aggression and aggression in general.

Tips for Managing Aggression in Others

Managing aggression in others can be challenging, but it’s possible with the right approach and support. Below are some tips that may help in de-escalating a situation and promoting a safe and calm environment:

  • Stay calm: When faced with aggression, it is essential to remain calm and composed. Your emotional reactions can escalate a situation, so maintain a calm and neutral demeanor.
  • Identify triggers: Identify the triggers that may be causing the aggressive behavior. These triggers can differ for each individual, including frustration, anxiety, or sensory overload.
  • Use non-threatening language: When speaking with an individual exhibiting aggression, use non-threatening language, avoid eye contact, and don’t make demands. Speak in a calm and reassuring tone.
  • Give space: It can be helpful to give the individual some space and distance, allowing them to calm down and regain control.
  • Redirect attention: Try neutral redirection. For example, a child who punches people to get attention can be neutrally redirected to respectfully tap someone else on the shoulder and say “excuse me” instead of hitting.13
  • Seek professional help: If the aggression persists or becomes dangerous, seek professional help. This can include contacting a mental health professional or emergency services.


  1. Autism Speaks Inc. “Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).” Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org/applied-behavior-analysis. Accessed 2 May 2023.
  2. “What Is Applied Behavior Analysis?” WebMD, 9 Apr. 2021, www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-applied-behavior-analysis.
  3. Kanne, Stephen M., and Micah O. Mazurek. “Aggression in Children and Adolescents With ASD: Prevalence and Risk Factors.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 41, no. 7, Springer Science+Business Media, July 2011, pp. 926–37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-1118-4.
  4. BCh, Sean Z. Kaliski Mb, PhD. “Impulse Control, Impulsivity, and Violence: Clinical Implications.” Psychiatric Times, 16 Nov. 2020, www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/impulse-control-impulsivity-and-violence-clinical-implications.
  5. Soreff, Stephen M., et al. “Aggression.” StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf, 3 Oct. 2022, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448073.
  6. Mattson, M. P. Aggression in Brain Injury, Aging, and Neurodegenerative Disorders. Humana Press, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-59259-382-8_9.
  7. “Expert Q&A: How ABA Therapy Can Help With Severe Behaviors | Autism Speaks.” Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org/blog/expert-qa-how-aba-therapy-can-help-severe-behaviors.
  8. Delano, Claire, BA. “Effective Autism Aggression Treatment: Ideas to Consider.” Autism Parenting Magazine, Oct. 2021, www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-aggression-treatment.
  9. Wallace, Simon, PhD. “Autism and Aggression – What Can Help? | Autism Speaks.” Autism Speaks, 12 Sept. 2018, www.autismspeaks.org/autism-and-aggression.
  10. Brosnan, Julie, and Olive Healy. “A Review of Behavioral Interventions for the Treatment of Aggression in Individuals With Developmental Disabilities.” Research in Developmental Disabilities, vol. 32, no. 2, Elsevier BV, Mar. 2011, pp. 437–46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2010.12.023.
  11. Dawson, Geraldine and Burner, Karen M. “Behavioral Interventions in Children and Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Current Opinion in Pediatrics, vol. 23, no. 6, Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, Dec. 2011, pp. 616–20. https://doi.org/10.1097/mop.0b013e32834cf082.
  12. Linstead, Erik, et al. “An Evaluation of the Effects of Intensity and Duration on Outcomes Across Treatment Domains for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Translational Psychiatry, vol. 7, no. 9, Nature Portfolio, Sept. 2017, p. e1234. https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2017.207.
  13. Special Learning. “Intervention Strategies for Aggression: Hitting – Special Learning.” Special Learning, 20 Apr. 2023, special-learning.com/blog/intervention-strategies-for-aggression-hitting.

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