Parenting Kids, Seriously

The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

In the last section I explained how The Whole Brain Child describes the left and right brain. Now I will explain the upstairs and downstairs brain – yes, the brain is like it is in quarters, but it all connects and relates to each other.

The downstairs brain controls: emotions, bodily sensations and actions i.e., anger, breathing, blinking, fear, fight or flight

The upstairs brain controls: thinking, planning, imagining, processing, self understanding, control over your body, morals

Our brain isn’t fully matured until our mid-twenties. People are born with a fully functioning downstairs brain in order to survive – but the upstairs brain is still being developed, and considered under construction until around the age of 25.

Like in the previous section, the brain works best when it is balanced – or ‘integrated’. To vertically integrate the two, we want to work from bottom to top. We want to be able to take the natural, nature instincts from the bottom, and evaluate and control them with the upstairs brain; To think about our emotions and physical feelings from the downstairs and make the right decisions with the upstairs.

“This is why it is really important information for parents to understand, because it means that all of the abilities on the list above, the behaviors and skills we want and expect our kids to demonstrate, like sound decision making, control over their emotions and bodies, empathy, self understanding, and morality, are dependent on a part of their brain that hasn’t fully developed yet. Since the upstairs brain is still under construction, it isn’t capable of fully functioning all the time, meaning that it can’t be integrated with the downstairs brain and consistently work at its best. As a result, kids are prone to getting ‘trapped  downstairs,’ without the use of their upstairs brain, which results in them flying off the handle, making poor decisions, and showing a general lack of empathy and self understanding.”

The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson, pages 41-42


Based on the information above, we can then understand that there are two types of tantrums; The upstairs tantrum and the downstairs tantrum.

Upstairs tantrums occur when a child chooses to get upset and fly off the handle. They makes a choice to push your buttons until they get what they want. To respond to an upstairs tantrum, there’s one rule “never negotiate with a terrorist.” – The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson, pages 45

You must first recognize their emotions and let them know, calmly, that you see and hear their wants and feelings. Second, you need to then set firm boundaries and respectfully stand your ground. State how your child’s behavior is making you feel, and consequences that will follow if they don’t choose to stop. This won’t stop these all together, but they will definitely slow down over time as your child learns your boundaries – so long as you stand your ground.

Downstairs tantrums, on the other hand ( or brain I should say ) are where your child actually looses control. They become so upset by their feelings and emotions they can no longer make a conscious choice on how to behave. This is called “flipping their lid” (I will cover this area on the next page.)

This is where your child has become trapped in their downstairs brain, because the amygdala, which connects the two, has temporarily closed off. This isn’t hypothetical or to draw you a picture – this is what’s actually going on in their brain and why they are not going to behave as you are wanting them to.

In this type of tantrum, handling it as you would an upstairs tantrum will only worsen things. Although it may be hard for the parent in this situation, this is where gentleness, compassion, and comforting are most needed. You need to go back to how you would handle things when looking at the left and right brain aspect – connect and redirect. Unless of course your child is in danger or soon to be, you need to get down on their level and validate their emotions. Hold them if they wish, talk to them gently, and remind them how much you love them. Once they have calmed down, you can go back to the subject and let them know that the way they acted was not okay – but be constructive about it. Your child does not know yet how else to show how they feel, it is your job to teach them that. Talk to them about what happened and what upset them. Suggest different ways they could have handled things i.e., instead of hitting.