The Brain Stoplight
The Brain Stoplight is based on the work of Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and brain researcher from Texas. His work really helped me to understand what was happening in my own brain and then what was happening in my child’s brain. The brain stoplight is a simple tool I developed that helps us to learn how to respond to our children and ourselves.
When we’re in the “green” area of the brain, prefrontal cortex or thinking brain, we’re calm. Physically, this is the area of your brain behind your forehead. We’re able to connect, to learn, we’re able to have a conversation and everyone is able to take in the conversation. We’re able to problem solve to the best of our ability. We learn our best here. We’re at our full IQ.
When you’re driving in a car, a green light at an intersection means go. In parenting, a green light is when it is time to have that conversation and explain something. As we’ll discuss later, this is the time to go to the grocery store.
When you see a yellow light at an intersection, you have two choices. You can speed up and run right into red or slow down and wait for green. Yellow light is the middle part of our brain, or the emotional brain. Notice that it is a different physical part of the brain. (Put your hand on the crown of your head and you’ll understand what we’re talking about here if you can’t see the image.) We lose access to about 25 IQ points. (Average IQ is 100. 25 less is 75, which is about Forrest Gump. He’s loveable, but not necessarily a smart man.)
Yellow light is also where we connect most deeply with one another, so the emotional brain/yellow light isn’t something that is to be avoided. If you’ve experienced someone really connecting with you when you were upset, holding you, or just listening, you know what that feels like. When you can remember to slow down and pay attention to the early signs of yellow and connect with yourself or your child in some way, you can often avoid red.
As humans, we would like to avoid this part of the brain being activated when we can unless it is really necessary. Our survival brain is great when we need life saving measures (fight, flight, or freeze) because there is an alligator nearby or we’re being attacked. However, most of the time your circumstances don’t require the life-saving reaction your brain is trying to provide when your toddler spills his juice. Your toddler may be reacting from this part of his brain, but your job as parent is to help him learn to soothe this part of his brain and return to connection and calm.
On red, we’ve lost access to about 50 IQ points. So, I like to think of it as being slightly smarter than a rock. Not a good time to make parenting decisions. Not a good time to try to explain why your child can’t take the toy from your friend’s house using logic. That’s a great thing to do on green. Or to plan ahead and anticipate, letting your child know when he’s still on green before you are ready to leave and transition.
When you’re driving and see a red light, it is time to STOP.
Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
You may need to move through the energy that just mobilized to protect you by walking or running, pushing against a wall, or singing really loudly, just to name a few examples. Red light in your brain just got you ready to protect yourself. That energy needs to go somewhere it won’t hurt you or anyone else. The same is true of our children.
When you’re trying to survive (fight, flight, or freeze response), words may just spew out that you don’t actually mean. You aren’t actually thinking when you’re in this part of our brain.
Notice the distance between your forehead and the very back of your head. They’re two different locations. Physically.
Next we’re going to look more closely at Green Light.