Freeman Medical Musings Blog

The Behavior Traffic Light: An Overview

Posted by Dr. Kimberly Fielding, on April 03, 2015

People around the world – drivers and nondrivers alike – can relate to the meaning of the colors red, yellow and green in terms of traffic control. Traffic lights help drivers determine whether to go, slow or stop. This understanding of a traffic light can be applied to good mental health interactions with children so well.

As I discussed in my last blog post, the benefit of using the behavior traffic light metaphor is that children see traffic lights in everyday activities and understand how the lights apply to car behavior. For example, children learn from adults about how “running a red light gets you a ticket” or “the yellow light means slow down.”

However, the messages of go, slow and stop as applied to mental health are not always as clear – there is wiggle room for what each of those terms means. For example, “control” does not have to have a negative meaning attached to it. The meaning a child attaches to the colors gives us clues to his or her perception of power, control and authority (of his or her own and with others). Adults can help cultivate healthy perceptions of self-control.

Children may hear the messages of go, slow and stop only as external forces that manage their thinking, feeling and doing (i.e., behavior choices). For good mental health, children must also develop the use of internal strengths to manage their behavior. Regularly exercising inner strength builds resiliency – the ability to face challenges. Resiliency helps children grow into adulthood with healthy perceptions of power, control and authority.

If the messages of go, slow and stop only come from the outside, the child’s capacity to face adversity may become compromised. One way that this can impair resiliency is the potential contempt for force of any kind – including the child’s own force. A child may direct resentment for outside forces inward and, therefore, not see himself or herself as important or having a purpose. The result is a child who could become dependent on external decision-makers. Contempt can also be directed at others, and the child may become too independent in his or her own sense of importance and purpose. Some children cycle through the objects of contempt, so it depends on whose importance and purpose they resent most in the current situation.


  • Contempt for self: too dependent
  • Contempt for others: too independent
  • Revolving contempt: cycles depend on direction of contempt

Thus, interactions about the colors of go, slow and stop can show how a person interprets navigating issues of power, control and authority.

Check back next week for more information about the colors of the traffic light as they apply to children’s mental health!