Upstairs versus downstairs tantrums

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Upstairs versus downstairs tantrums

The common thinking about tantrums is that there is one kind of tantrum, and the way parents should respond is to ignore it. Actually, there are probably lots of different types of tantrums, but a helpful way to think about it is in terms of an upstairs tantrum and a downstairs tantrum. I think of the upstairs brain, or the top part of the brain is the more evolved, rational, problem solving brain; whereas, the downstairs brain is more primitive and animal like. When our child is having an upstairs tantrum, it's sort of those times when they are being intentionally manipulative. They are in control and still make choices. If you give them what they want, they will be plenty happy and go on their way. This is where they are really trying to get what they want by manipulating you. The best response to that is to not give in. It's like negotiating with a terrorist. If it works for them, they will keep doing it. A downstairs tantrum, when their primitive brain has taken over, they are flooded with emotion, it's sort of like they are losing their mind, right? When they are in these states of mind, having these downstairs tantrums, they really are not in control. They can't make a choice anymore, even if you give them what they want, they will continue to lose it. In these moments, what they need most from us is comfort. Now, of course, we are not going to let them knock things off shelves or hurt other people. We may have to hold them and say, "You are not in control right now and I need to help you until you have more control." In these moments, they need us to calm them down by giving lots of comfort. If we were to ignore them in these states, it would be like ignoring them when they are physically hurt. When they are in emotional distress, what they need is comfort and care.

Watch Tina Payne Bryson, PhD's video on Upstairs versus downstairs tantrums...


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Tina Payne Bryson, PhD

Psychotherapist & Author

Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, is a psychotherapist at Pediatric and Adolescent Psychology Associates in Arcadia, California, where she sees children and adolescents, as well as provides parenting consultations. She is the school counselor at St. Marks Episcopal School in Altadena, CA, and a Developmental Consultant to Camp Chippewa for Boys. She speaks to parents, educators, and clinicians all across the country. Dr. Bryson earned her PhD from the University of Southern California, where her research explored attachment science, childrearing theory, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. Her best-selling book The Whole-Brain Child (co-authored with Dr. Dan Siegel) gives parents practical ways to transform difficult moments into opportunities for children to thrive.  Dr. Bryson has written for a large number of publications, most recently the PBS series “This Emotional Life.”  She lives near Los Angeles with her husband and three children.  

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