Two Types of Tantrums at Early Childhood

Two types of tantrums: How to tell the difference between the twoDownstairs/Meltdown Tantrums

Let us imagine…

We are at the mall with our five-year-old son. 

After a sleepless night spent tending to his scary dreams, the two of us had a hard time getting going this morning. We needed to run a few errands around town, so we handed him a granola bar and rushed him out the door. 

The weather was gloomy and it started to downpour, backing up traffic all across town–why did we decide to go out today? To avoid the traffic, we chose to stop at the mall and wait out the storm.

We walk inside, dripping water on the floor, chilled to the bone. That is when he spots it–the horse carousel. It is his absolute favorite ride.

“Mommy, can I ride the horse? Please!”

It’s been such a rough day we figure we will treat him to a ride. However, when we pull out our wallet, we find it empty of change.

“I’m sorry, honey,” we say. “I don’t have any money. We can’t ride today.”

His face darkens as he sticks out his bottom lip.

“But I want to ride it,” he says quietly.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”

Suddenly, big tears begin to roll down his cheeks as heaving sobs rise up from his chest. He falls to the floor and slams his little fists into the tile.

We start to notice people staring–he doesn’t.

We try to pull him up into a hug, but his body goes limp as he cries even louder. As much as we try to stop the tantrum, nothing seems to work. Quickly, we pick him up and carry him toward the door.

All we want right now is to help him calm down. The whole situation leaves us feeling helpless and sympathetic.

So, what happened?

After a rough night with little sleep, and an even rougher morning with little food, our son hit a wall…and lost it.

This would be an example of a downstairs tantrum. Also known as a meltdown.

Just like a house, the downstairs portion of the brain was built first. It’s been there since birth helping control basic functions and emotions, such as flight or fight, anger, and sadness.

Naturally, the downstairs brain is very easily affected by outside conditions. In this case, the combination of little sleep from the night before and a rushed morning without much food meant a meltdown was not only possible, it was highly likely to happen. Not getting to ride the horse was simply the catalyst that set the tantrum in motion.

Upstairs/Manipulative Tantrums

Now let us imagine…

We are at the mall with our five-year-old son. 

After sleeping in this morning, the two of us enjoyed a filling breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, before hitting the road to run some errands around town.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the traffic was light–all the ingredients for a perfect day–so you decided to make one more stop at the mall to enjoy lunch at our son’s favorite restaurant.

As we are leaving the restaurant, he spots the little horse carousel a few shops down. It’s his absolute favorite ride.

“Mommy, can I ride the horse? Please!”

He’s been so good today, we figure we will treat him to a ride. However, when we pull out your wallet you find it empty of change.

“I’m sorry, honey,” we say. “I don’t have any money. You can’t ride today.”

Suddenly, our sweet, well-behaved little boy is nowhere to be seen.

“But I want to ride it!” he yells.

We start to notice people staring–and so does he. This only further ignites his need to make a scene. He rushes over to the horse and hops on, wrapping his arms tightly around the neck.

“I won’t leave until I have a ride!” he yells.

With cheeks flushed, we lift him off the horse and start pulling him toward the door. He lets his body go limp and crumples to the floor. We can do nothing but stand beside him, wide-eyed in disbelief at how his attitude so quickly shifted.

We are frustrated, annoyed, and absolutely embarrassed by his behavior.

So much for our perfect day.

Our son had a great night’s sleep, a full belly, and a good attitude. So, what happened?

This would be an example of an upstairs tantrum. Also known as a manipulative tantrum. 

This type of tantrum is generally a display of power, used by the child to manipulate his parents into giving him what he wants. In this case, a ride on his favorite carousel.

It’s this portion of the brain that your son uses for higher thinking and planning, hence the manipulation factor. He knew–probably from past experience–that a public tantrum could get him what he wanted and acted accordingly.

Ironically enough, this same portion of the brain controls his ability to think calmly. But because it’s so much more sophisticated than the downstairs, it takes much longer to develop. In fact, our son’s upstairs brain won’t fully mature until he is in his twenties!

This also explains why meltdowns happen. When the upstairs brain isn’t working properly, it’s very easy for a child’s brain to lose control, unable to grasp the ability to calm down and think rationally. 

Which Tantrum is Which?

Although there are two types of toddler temper tantrums, spotting the difference can be tricky. But knowing the difference is key because each one must be handled differently.

So how do we know which is which? Believe it or not, the biggest factor comes down to us–NOT our child.

That’s right. We are talking about our reaction to the tantrum itself. How does it make us feel?

When our child’s tantrum leaves us feeling helpless or sympathetic, there’s a good chance it’s a downstairs tantrum. 

Why? Because the meltdown is something our child really cannot help. They don’t want to misbehave, but without the help of a mature upstairs brain, they simply cannot control their emotions.

It’s our job to help them work through their big emotions and be the calm to their storm. 

However, when the tantrum leaves us feeling frustrated, angry, or irritated, it is most likely an upstairs tantrum. We know we are being manipulated.

Final Thoughts

As parents, we have all been on the receiving end of a toddler tantrum at one point in time. There’s nothing quite like them. 

Whether they happen in public–where it feels like every eye is glaring at you–or in the privacy of your own home, it’s never pretty. And certainly never easy. 

Having an understanding of which type of tantrum we are dealing with can help tremendously. Especially, if we have the right tools to deal with them.

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Two Types of Tantrums at Early Childhood

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