Is that an upstairs or a downstairs tantrum?

Do tantrums test you?

I find them really hard. Sometimes I despair and think ‘I have absolutely no idea how to respond to this’.  One thing that has really helped me is learning about ‘Upstairs’ and  ‘Downstairs’ tantrums — from The Whole-Brain Child.

For those of you who don’t have time to read the book, here are my cliff notes!

Imagine that our brains are like a two-storey house. For us to behave effectively, we need the upstairs and downstairs to be integrated.

Downstairs are the primitive bits — the brain stem and the limbic region.  The downstairs parts of the brain help us with basic functions like breathing and blinking, and drive innate reactions and impulses (e.g. fight and flight). These parts are also responsible for strong emotions, such as  anger and fear.

Upstairs is the more evolved cerebral cortex — it is more sophisticated. Upstairs looks after thinking, imagining, and planning. This is where we carry out our calm decision making. It also helps us have some control over our the impulses that come from the downstairs brain.

Why is this important when it comes to kids? Two reasons; firstly, our upstairs brains are under construction until we’re in our early 20s! It’s like an extension to a house that takes 20 years. The downstairs brain is there and ready from birth, but those higher order processes take much longer to build. For this reason, it is sometimes really hard for kids to think in the calm, rational way we would like. They are often hijacked by their downstairs brain – which can result in them flying off the handle, making poor decisions, and generally showing a lack of empathy and rational thinking.

Secondly, the upstairs part of the brain can sometimes be ‘shut off’ by part of the downstairs brain (the amygdala). It’s like someone put a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs, and when we experience really strong emotions or impulses, the amygdala takes over, and latches the baby gate. In kids, this makes the parts of the upstairs brain that are developed, completely inaccessible.

When the baby gate is closed, the downstairs primitive brain is in total control.

So, how does this relate to tantrums? Well, an ‘upstairs tantrum’ is where a child is throwing the tantrum in order to get what they want. It is a conscious decision to react in this way to push you to get a desired outcome! A ‘downstairs tantrum’ is the opposite – here a child is so overcome with emotion that they are no longer able to use their upstairs brain.

They’ve ‘lost it’!

When kids are in this state they are unable to calm themselves down. They’re also unable to listen to and process what you are saying so trying to reason with them is of no use! Scolding them also won’t have much impact because in this state, they’re not capable of taking in the message you are giving.

How can you tell whether your child is having an upstairs or downstairs tantrum?

The main thing to consider is whether the tantrum and tears could stop if you gave them what they wanted. If it is an upstairs tantrum, all the tears and tantrum behaviour will stop as soon as they get what they want. If it is a downstairs tantrum, the switch won’t be so easily flicked. It will take much longer for your child to calm down and ‘re group’. Our kids are amazing actors and actresses so sometimes it is hard to tell which is which! You’ll likely make a few mistakes but keep looking for the signs and you’ll end up being able to differentiate.

The reason this differentiation is so important and helpful is that upstairs and downstairs tantrums require completely different responses from you. If you believe your child is having an upstairs tantrum, the required response is very clear – never negotiate with this terrorist!  You need to stay firm and not give in. Giving in will lead to the belief that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want! Even if you hold out for 30 mins, and then you give in…that just sends the message that next time they need to tantrum for at least 30 minutes!

Downstairs tantrums require a completely different response.

When your child is in a complete state of disintegration, and they have lost control of their emotions, a more nurturing and comforting response is needed. Here you should try and be the calm in their storm, and connect with them in a loving, soothing way. You could perhaps use a hug, or touch and soothing tone of voice. You could simply sit with them or near them to show your support and help them calm down. Different things will work for different kids but the aim here is to try and calm and soothe your child. There is absolutely no point trying to talk about consequences or appropriate behaviour when they are in this state – you can do that later once the upstairs brain has re-entered the picture!

If you stand firm to upstairs tantrums, they should reduce in frequency as your child will learn that they don’t achieve much! Downstairs tantrums will also reduce in frequency and intensity as kids get older…they can be very trying for us parents in the meantime but try and use this insight to be the rock your child needs in these challenging moments!

Good luck!






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