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2 Types of Tantrums and How to Handle Them

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At what age do kids stop throwing tantrums? I figured it would be five or six, but on the night of my son’s tenth birthday, we were in the thick of one. It wasn’t the textbook stomping feet or laying on the floor screaming—he’s too mature for that. No, he was upset because his birthday didn’t go the way he thought it would. The night ended with him wailing in bed for 20 minutes and ignoring all my tired attempts to reason with him.

Not all tantrums are the same. Your kids don’t freak out the same way mine does, but even with individual children, there are two types of tantrums that happen for two different reasons. When you can identify which one you’re in the throes of, you’ll be much better equipped to handle the situation. So which of these 2 types of tantrums feels more familiar to you?

Downstairs Tantrum

Of the two types of tantrums, this is the one most parents of little ones are familiar with. Also known as a meltdown, a downstairs tantrum happens when the “downstairs” or primitive part of the brain takes over. It’s explained well in The Whole Brained Child. This part of the brain, which is fully formed when we’re born, helps with basic functions like breathing, blinking, fear, anger, and fight or flight. When our kids are under stress or so overcome with emotion, it can take over, locking the door that leads to the upstairs, more logical part of the brain.

The night of my son’s birthday was definitely a downstairs tantrum. He’d been swimming all day, was over-stimulated after having friends over, and he’d had ice cream cake at lunch and dinner. Hey, we had to eat it or it was just going to melt! He hit a wall and the meltdown began.

Upstairs Tantrum

If downstairs tantrums can be called meltdowns, upstairs tantrums can be considered manipulation. The upstairs part of the brain helps us plan, control our impulses, and think logically. It’s still under construction well into a person’s 20s. Of the two types of tantrums, the upstairs tantrum is the intentional one. Your child is behaving in order to get a reaction from you.

If my son had been well-rested yet screaming and demanding that I order him another present off Amazon, I would suspect that this was an upstairs, manipulative tantrum.

The Trick to Knowing if You’re Upstairs or Downstairs

The simplest way to know which of the two types of tantrums you’re dealing with is to consider whether the tantrum would stop if you gave your child what he or she wanted. If it’s a yes, you know you’re being manipulated. If it’s a no, you know your child has lost control.

How to Deal With the Two Types of Tantrums

If it’s an upstairs tantrum, stay strong. Don’t give in! You’re just proving to your child that his or her tantrum strategy works. Walk away and say you’re willing to discuss it when he or she calms down. If your child tries again, repeat the process. If it’s a meltdown, a little more finesse is necessary. Your child might need a back rub or a calm voice from you. Eventually, I had to walk away from my son because everything I said caused his tears to escalate. He just needed a moment to himself.

And this is key: Knowing which kind of tantrum you’re dealing with is more about you, Mom, than your child. Controlling your reaction is the most important factor in stopping and preventing tantrums.

Controlling your reaction is the most important factor in stopping and preventing tantrums. Click To Tweet

How do you handle tantrums in your house? What do your kids throw tantrums over?


What’s your favorite way to use your brain?

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