Types of tantrums
The dreaded tantrum can be one of the most unpleasant parts of parenting. Whether it takes place in private or worse in public, it can, in the blink of an eye, turn your child into the most unattractive and repulsive being on the planet.
Most parents are taught that there is only one good way to respond to a tantrum: ignore it. Otherwise, you will be communicating to your child that tantrums equal giving in to my wants and she will wield it against you in the future.
But did you know that tantrums can be classified into two different types?
Upstairs tantrum: Dealing with a mini terrorist
An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit. The key word is she decides to. She makes a conscious choice to act out, push buttons and terrorize you till she get what she wants. She is doing this well knowing that she is able to instantly stop the tantrum if she wanted to. The reason she can stop is because she is using her upstairs brain at the moment. She may look like she is losing control. But you can see that she is making very purposeful actions, well aware of her behavior and definitely working on getting what she wants with the strategy she has in mind.
For parents who recognizes such a tantrum, you are left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist! An upstairs tantrum calls for firm boundaries and a clear discussion about the appropriate and inappropriate behavior. A good response in this situation would be to calmly explain: “I understand that you want that toy, but I don’t like the way you are acting. If you don’t stop now, you won’t be getting that toy and I’ll need to cancel your playdate this afternoon, because you are showing me that you are not able to handle yourself well. It is important to follow through on those consequences if the behavior doesn’t stop.
If you refuse to give in to upstairs tantrums – regardless of the age of your child – you will see this form of behavior reduces. Since these tantrums are intentional, children will stop returning to such behavior when they learn that it is ineffective and often backfires.
Downstairs tantrum: Dealing with a baby
A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child is so upset that he is no longer in control to use his upstairs brain to regulate his behavior. In this moment, the stress hormones are flooding his little body such that virtually no part of his higher brain is fully functioning. As a result, he is basically incapacitated, incapable of regulating his own emotions.
When your child is in this state of dis-integration and a full-blown meltdown, a completely different approach is called for. Whereas a child throwing an upstairs tantrum needs a parent to quickly set boundaries, an appropriate response to a downstairs tantrum is much more nurturing and comforting.
The first thing a parent needs to do is to connect with the child and help him calm himself down. This can be accomplished through a loving touch and soothing tone of voice. Or, if he has gone so far that he is in danger of hurting himself or others or destroying property, you may have to hold him close and calmly talk him down as you remove him from the scene.
We once had an incident in the lab. There was a special boy who had a complete meltdown because he was upset with his brother. He went around the lab trashing and throwing anything that was in his way and even landed a robot on an instructor’s face. It took us almost an hour of coaxing. Boy was it hard, but the boy finally calmed down and everything was back to normal. And well, it happens. Patience is key.
You can experiment with different approaches depending on your child’s temperament, but what is important is that you help soothe him and steer him away from the chaos bank of the river. There is no sense in talking about consequences or appropriate behavior. He simply can’t process any of that information when he is in the middle of a meltdown.
Once he is calm, remember to still respond to the issue using logic and reason. Once he is in a more receptive place, you can also talk about the appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and about the possible consequences. You can and should still maintain your authority – that is crucial – but to be done in a more appropriate time. And your child is more likely to internalize the lesson because you are teaching it when his brain is more receptive to listen and learn.
Well I hope you don’t experience another of your child’s meltdown, try differentiating your child’s next episode.