A new kind of tantrum

According to Dr Daniel Siegel, co-author of The Whole-Brain Child, there are two kinds of tantrums. The “upstairs” and “downstairs” – “upstairs” being a deliberate tantrum meant to achieve a specific want, whereas “downstairs” tantrums are caused by the child’s inability to emotionally regulate.

Now that they are older, you will find they are more skilled in understanding their world and may consciously decide to act out to manipulate and push limits. Such tantrums can end the moment you give in to the child’s demands. “Upstairs” tantrums will become a significant hurdle you have to handle, at this stage of their life.

My sassy child

Sassiness, sarcasm, backtalk – whatever term you call it, it’s a power play. Unfortunately, it is also learned behaviour. It can be hilariously funny, wildly inappropriate, or shockingly rude.

What we must realise is that children often don’t realise the full impact of their words. In the same way they mimicked you in their younger years without really understanding what they were copying, their sassiness most likely comes from an effort to copy behaviour they’ve seen, that made an impression on them.

So controlling your reaction counts, but since we are only human; and kids can be very funny (I know, I’ve been unable to stop myself from laughing several times) – the more essential thing here is to talk your child through it. Reprimand or punish if required but also make the effort to find out your child’s perspective; and address the reason why your child’s words were inappropriate. This helps your child understand the intricacies of social norms or other complex societal issues that may be at play.

  • Engage their thinking and observation skills – previously, we talked about briefing your child and guiding them on how they should appropriately act [insert link to Age 2-4]. Now is the time to see the fruits of your labour. When opportunities arise, e.g. when reading a book, or seeing another child act out, or before going to someplace new, ask your child to brief you, while giving some guidance and suggestions.


  • Teach self-regulation – your child’s prefrontal cortex is still immature; and they will be undergoing another significant leap between the ages of 4 to 6. So your role is still essential as an external emotional regulator.

What you can do however, is guide your child on how to handle his or her emotions, so that he or she can pick up lifelong skills of how to self-regulate.

We talked about the science of tantrums in our latest podcast. Tune in to learn more.

  • Be selective and be firm – In the same way you pay attention and acknowledge your child’s good behaviours to encourage it, depriving your child of your attention to discourage bad behaviours is also an effective strategy, particularly in managing “upstairs” tantrums.


  • Encourage ownership – at this age, your child has some sense of right and wrong. Talk about your expectations; and encourage your child to take ownership of certain tasks, or work towards achieving certain goals.


  • Recognise, take Responsibility and think about how to Resolve - guide how your child thinks with this simple 3 step process. Recognise the issue or fault, take sincere responsibility for it, then consider what can be done to correct the issue, or show that one is sincerely sorry, or mend the relationship. This is a long lasting strategy that teaches children to think beyond the immediate consequences of their actions.
Image 3 The 3 Step Process

In the same way purpose driven discipline has helped you refine your parenting towards long-term success, giving your child a sense of purpose will help redirect your child’s thoughts and behaviours, while fostering a positive emotional climate within the family. Positivity breeds positivity.

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