The dreaded tantrum can be one of the most unpleasant parts of parenting. Whether it takes place in private or in public, it can, in the blink of an eye, turn the person who owns our heart and moves mountains with one beautiful little smile, into the most unattractive and repulsive being on the planet.
Most parents have been taught that there’s only one good way to respond to a tantrum: ignore it. Otherwise, you communicate to your child that she has a powerful weapon to wield against you, and she will wield it over and over again.
But what does this new knowledge about the brain say about tantrums? When you know about the upstairs and downstairs brain, you can also see that there are really two different types of tantrums. An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit. She makes a conscious choice to act out, to push buttons and terrorize you until she get what she wants. Despite her dramatic and seemingly heartfelt pleas, she could instantly stop the tantrum if she wanted to—for instance, if you gave in to her demands or reminded her that she is about to lose a cherished privilege. The reason she can stop is that she is using her upstairs brain at that moment. She is able to control her emotions and body, to be logical and make good decisions. She may look like she’s completely out of control as she screams in the middle of the mall, “I want those princess slippers now!” But you can see that she knows what she’s doing, and that she’s definitely working from strategy and manipulation to achieve a desired end: that you drop everything and immediately buy the slippers.
A parent who recognizes an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist. An upstairs tantrum calls for firm boundaries and a clear discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. A good response in this situation would be to calmly explain, “I understand that you’re excited about the slippers, but I don’t like the way you’re acting. If you don’t stop now, you won’t get the slippers, and I’ll need to cancel your playdate this afternoon, because you’re showing me that you’re not able to handle yourself well.” Then it’s important to follow through on those consequences if the behavior doesn’t stop. By providing this type of firm limit, you’re giving your daughter practice at seeing the consequences of her inappropriate actions, and at learning to control her impulses. You’re teaching her that respectful communication, patience, and delayed gratification pay off—and that contrary behaviors don’t. Important lessons for a developing brain.
If you refuse to give in to upstairs tantrums—regardless of the age of your child—you’ll stop seeing them on a regular basis. Since upstairs tantrums are intentional, children will stop returning to that particular strategy when they learn that it’s ineffective—and often even leads to negative results.
A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child becomes so upset that he’s no longer able to use his upstairs brain. Your toddler becomes so angry that you poured water on his head to wash his hair that he begins screaming, throwing toys out of the tub, and wildly swinging his fists, trying to hit you. In this case, the lower parts of his brain—in particular his amygdala—take over and hijack his upstairs brain. He’s not even close to being in a state of integration. In fact, the stress hormones flooding his little body mean that virtually no part of his higher brain is fully functioning. As a result, he’s literally incapable—momentarily, at least—of controlling his body or emotions, and of using all of those higher-order thinking skills, like considering consequences, solving problems, or considering others’ feelings. He’s flipped his lid. The baby gate is blocking access to the upstairs, and he simply can’t use his whole brain. (When you later tell someone that your child “totally lost his mind,” you’ll actually be more neurologically accurate than you realize!)
When your child is in this state of dis-integration and a full-blown downstairs tantrum has erupted, a completely different parental response is called for. Whereas a child throwing an upstairs tantrum needs a parent to quickly set firm boundaries, an appropriate response to a downstairs tantrum is much more nurturing and comforting. As in the “connect and redirect” technique we discussed in chapter 2, the first thing a parent needs to do is to connect with the child and help him calm himself down. This can often be accomplished through loving touch and a soothing tone of voice. Or, if he has gone so far that he’s in danger of hurting himself or someone else or destroying property, you may have to hold him close and calmly talk him down as you remove him from the scene.
You can experiment with different approaches depending on your child’s temperament, but what’s most important is that you help soothe him and steer him away from the chaos bank of the river. There’s no sense in talking about consequences or appropriate behavior. He simply can’t process any of that information when he’s in the middle of his downstairs tantrum, because that conversation requires a functioning upstairs brain that can listen and assimilate information. So your first task, when your child’s upstairs brain has been hijacked by his downstairs brain, is to help calm his amygdala.
Then, once the upstairs brain reenters the picture, you can begin to respond to the issue using logic and reason. (“Did you not like it that Daddy washed your hair like that? Do you have any ideas about how we should wash your hair next time?”) Once he is in a more receptive place, you can also talk about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and about any possible consequences (“I know you were really angry about the water splashing in your face. But it’s not OK to hit when you’re mad. You can use words and tell Daddy, ‘I don’t like that. Please stop’ ”). Your discipline can now maintain your authority—that’s crucial—but you can do so from a more informed and compassionate position. And your child is more likely to internalize the lesson because you’re teaching it when his brain is more receptive to learning.
As any veteran parent knows, flipping the lid isn’t unique to toddlers. It may look different when it occurs in a ten-year-old, but a child of any age (or even an adult!) is prone to having the downstairs brain take over in high-emotion situations. That’s why an awareness of the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain—and the tantrums that originate from each place—can help us be much more effective as we discipline our children. We can more clearly see when it’s time to draw the line and when it’s time to bring lots of nurturing compassion to help engage the upstairs brain.
Tantrums provide just one example of how practical this upstairs-downstairs knowledge can be. Now let’s talk about other ways you can help develop your child’s upstairs brain and allow it to become stronger and more integrated with the downstairs brain.