The Brain Stoplight

This post is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Consciously Parenting: What it Really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families. It also includes a video of Rebecca explaining the Brain Stoplight.

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Regulation and Dysregulation

Regulation and dysregulation—we use these terms to describe the internal state of an individual. In the past, if someone was dysregulated, we might have labeled that person angry, manipulative, or a brat, and applied other terms I won’t put into print. Their outward behaviors reflect their disturbed internal state—one they can’t often articulate clearly.

Dysregulation happens when someone experiences stress beyond what he or she can cope with alone. In contrast, when someone is regulated, he or she is experiencing an internal state of calm. The term regulation is used in every scientific discipline and is strongly correlated to overall mental health, yet it is a term most parents have never heard before.

To make the difference between regulation and dysregulation easy to understand, let’s compare our internal states to a stoplight.

When we see a green traffic light, we know we’re free to drive right on through the intersection. The green-light state is the calm state of regulation. When we’re in this state, we’re operating primarily from the conscious, rational, thinking part of our brain, found just behind our forehead (see the brain diagram below). According to Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert on children and trauma and author of the book The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, we are also functioning at our optimal mental capacity, and from here we can make decisions to the best of our ability.

When we shift into a yellow-light state, we are no longer in a state of calm. This is a state of dysregulation that deserves our attention, much like a flashing yellow light on a traffic signal requires our attention. We need to proceed with caution because we are no longer in a calm, regulated state. Our thinking has shifted back toward the center part of our brain, into a more emotional place.

When we are in this emotional place, we are no longer rational, as any mother of a toddler can attest. Operating from this emotional part of the brain is the equivalent of dropping about 25 IQ points! Trying to reason with someone when we or they are in a yellow-light state is generally counterproductive. Instead of speeding up when we see a yellow light, the best course of action (in a car and
in life) is to slow down.

If we become more dysregulated, our thinking moves into the survival part of the brain, which is located near the base of the skull. This is a red-light state. There is literally no reasoning with someone who is in survival state. This state triggers our “fight, flight, or freeze” response, which is meant to protect us in dangerous, life-threatening situations, such as when we see a bear. Survival overrides the conscious, rational, thinking brain in favor of the part that can take immediate life-saving measures. (Indeed, there is almost no activity in the rational part of the brain when the survival brain has been activated.) We are no longer calm, and we are certainly not rational. In fact, Perry suggests that when we are in the survival state of being, we are operating at 50 points below the IQ we have in the green-light state. We are mobilized for survival, and energy is sent to our extremities so that we can fight, run away, or freeze. The energy itself isn’t bad; however, we do need to learn how to move through this energy without hurting anyone or hurting ourselves until we can return to a state of calm.

The Brain Stoplight

Here is an example of regulation and dysregulation in action. Our family was spending the weekend with my husband’s parents on their sailboat. We arrived at a little island to hunt for shells and needed to ride on a shuttle wagon that took visitors across the island to the beach. The shuttle wasn’t there when we arrived, so we decided to walk across the island because it was less than one mile to the beach from the dock. My youngest, who was five years old at the time, had a very big meltdown because we had changed our plans. He went from a green-light state (excited, yet regulated) to a yellow light when we suggested not taking the shuttle, then on to a red light, in which he became completely overwhelmed, dissolving into a puddle on the sandy road.

Ideally, we would recognize the yellow-light state and create an opportunity for our child to express what is happening, or we might simply slow down in the same way we might for a flashing yellow light. When a child is in a yellow-light brain state, he needs nurturing and connection rather than rational explanations and discussions. When we can connect with our child in a yellow-light state, many times we can avoid the red-light state. Avoiding the red light is not about avoiding conflict or difficult situations for ourselves or our children, but rather helping to create patterns of being that enable everyone to return to a state of calm.

I realized my son was dysregulated, unable to calm himself down in that moment, and that meant that he needed help to regulate himself. And to regulate, he needed connection with someone who cared about him. Just this simple shift in my thinking helped me to be present with him instead of judging his behavior as wrong, as I would have done in the past.

My understanding his situation didn’t mean that we were going to do what he wanted to do, but it did mean that I was going to respect his feelings. We didn’t turn around and go back to wait for the shuttle wagon, even though that was what he was saying he wanted to do. Instead, I got down on the ground next to him and spoke to him softly. I told him that I knew he wanted to ride on the shuttle and it was hard when things didn’t go the way he thought they would go. I repeated this over and over again, calmly and patiently, yet feeling his frustration with him.

More important than the words was the tone of voice I used. My words simply reflected my own understanding of such frustrations from my own life, along with my emotional connection to him. I knew he was going to express his feelings (move through the energy that was coming up for him), return to a place of calm, and then be able to go on with us to the beach. He was also going to learn that I was there for him and that I trusted that he would be able to handle this situation with my support.

Within a few minutes, he had returned to a near green-light state. He was relatively calm and ready to continue across the island, and we did so by making a game out of moving across the sand path, pretending to be animals that moved in different ways. This game also helped him to move through the rest of the energy that had just come up for him.

In the past, his dysregulated state might have lasted for twenty or thirty minutes, and he probably would have continued struggling with every change for the rest of the day. But because he felt heard and supported in his feelings, and he moved through the energy that came up for him, he was able to arrive at the beach a few minutes after the others and had a wonderful time exploring and collecting shells.

As a side note, in the past, when I didn’t know that he would move through the feelings and then calm down, I was often upset right along with him, feeling totally out of control and most likely on a red-light state myself. I experienced my own upset, in part, because, when I was growing up, I did not have the experience of moving all the way through my own feelings and back into regulation.
As an adult, once I’d had my own supported experiences of moving through my own feelings, I was more able to support my boys’ expression of feelings much more often.

We can allow the energy of our children’s emotional upsets to move through us without it overtaking us, but allowing our child’s emotional expression may be a new idea if, in the past, we haven’t experienced moving through our own feelings. (For more about exploring emotional expression, see chapter seven.)

Communication and Connection

We live in an extremely behavior-focused society. From the moment our babies are born, others are asking us about our baby’s behaviors and making judgments about whether the baby is good or bad based upon how much the baby inconveniences us as parents.

But babies’ behaviors are really just their way of communicating their internal state. The baby some parents may label as bad another parent would label as needing more help to adjust to the world. Do you feel the difference? The words we use to describe our children can help create connection or disconnection right from the start.

Most parenting advice focuses on getting the baby to fit into our lives rather than taking into account what the baby needs for optimal development beyond the obvious physical needs for food and rest. When we seek only to make a behavior stop, we miss the communication and sometimes even the opportunity for our children to develop to their fullest potential.

Take the example of a child who is waking at night. One of the most frequently asked questions from the moment a child is born is, “How is the baby sleeping?” and it seems that babies are rated on their circadian rhythms and how the parents answer that question. Most advice concerning sleeping is concerned only with what the parent can do to make the baby sleep, to teach the baby to
self-soothe so that she is less inconvenient for the parents.

But do we stop and ask why the baby is waking up in the first place? Is the baby hungry? Does he need someone to hold him? Is she scared? Was he premature and needs extra help adjusting to the world, especially when he was in the NICU and separated from his parents while interventions were being done? What happened during the birth of the baby? Is she telling her birth story through her night waking? Is she working to communicate her story through her sounds and body movements during the night? (For more information on exploring the origins of a sleep challenge, check out the Consciously Parenting Project’s “Little People, Big Challenges” audio series with Ray Castellino and Mary Jackson of See

And what about the next layers of questions: What happens if we don’t meet this need? Does it really matter? Most parenting advice usually says that it doesn’t. The research shows it does. Meeting the baby’s need matters a lot.

Parents who become focused on behavior when their children are young continue to focus on behavior and not their relationship with their children. As the children grow, the disconnection grows. Really alert parents may notice something isn’t right early on, but not know what to do about it.

Other times, parents realize that they don’t have a relationship with their children when the children are preteens or teens (though sometimes much earlier) and begin acting out very loudly. By this time, the behaviors are much bigger and more problematic. The parents are more scared, and there is clearly more risk involved. (The situation isn’t hopeless, but it is more challenging to repair relationships at this point than to focus on creating a healthy relationship from the start and repairing disconnections as they happen.)

In contrast, the parents with a strong relationship with their children don’t typically have the same problems. And those committed to making changes early on (elementary-school age or earlier is preferable) fare much better than those who wait.

Now that I’m not in the middle of the boot-throwing situation, I can see how much I wasn’t able to just listen to my son and be with him long before he got to the point of throwing the boot. My own pain and isolation got in the way of our communication and kept me from seeing where he was in that moment: in need of love and connection. His behavior became my wake-up call, prompting me to step forward, reconnect with my own inner guidance system, and find a solution. Ironically, that solution wasn’t actually a solution, or doing something at all, but rather about just being in the present moment with my son.

Our children communicate with us even before they are born. This communication and, more importantly, positive interaction with a committed caregiver are essential for their optimal development. As we shall see, it is the relationship that makes the difference, and our interpretation of our children’s behaviors affects the way we look at the relationship. In Book II, we’ll take a
more in-depth look at behaviors of various developmental stages, from infancy
to teens and beyond.

Questions to Ponder

• What do you look like when you’re in a green-light state? What does it feel like in your body?

• What does your child look like in a green-light state? How do you know it is green?

• What do you look like in a yellow-light state? What does it feel like in your body?

• What happens to alert you to your child entering a yellow-light state? What are the early warning signs that a light change is happening?

• What do you look like in a red-light state? What might someone else observe?

• What does your child look like in a red-light state? Is it similar to what you might look like, or is it different?

• Does your child have a behavior you’re particularly concerned about? Have you ever considered that it might be communicating part of his or her story? Does it give you hope to consider that idea, or does it feel scary for you to contemplate it?

Copyright © 2012-2020 The Consciously Parenting Project

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  • Rebecca Thompson Hitt

    Rebecca is passionate about creating safe spaces where learning about oneself in relationship to others can organically happen, both online and in-person. She offers professional trainings, as well as group experiences for individuals, couples, and families looking for personal growth using basic neuroscience, epigenetics, attachment theory, trauma, neurobiology, Polyvagal Theory, and Prenatal and Perinatal Somatic Psychology. Rebecca empowers individuals and families to co-create the connected relationships they desire. She is the author of 4 books and lives in Oaxaca, Mexico with her husband and two young adult sons.

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Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is passionate about creating safe spaces where learning about oneself in relationship to others can organically happen, both online and in-person. She offers professional trainings, as well as group experiences for individuals, couples, and families looking for personal growth using basic neuroscience, epigenetics, attachment theory, trauma, neurobiology, Polyvagal Theory, and Prenatal and Perinatal Somatic Psychology. Rebecca empowers individuals and families to co-create the connected relationships they desire. She is the author of 4 books and lives in Oaxaca, Mexico with her husband and two young adult sons.