Freeman Medical Musings Blog

The Behavior Traffic Light: Red Light

Posted by Dr. Kimberly Fielding, on April 28, 2015

In the overall theme of the behavior traffic light, the purpose of the red light is to cultivate the perception that red is important due to safety issues. Adults use red light words to send a message of caution. When a person is using the red light in their behavior traffic light, it is as if they are on alert and using fight, flight or freeze defense mechanisms. There are healthy and highly valued effects of activating the red light, detrimental effects can happen if the red light stays on too long.

Healthy red light examples:

  • “We stay safe by playing in the yard.”
  • “Check the label for ingredients so that we know this is safe.”
  • “I care about you, so please buckle up.”

The above examples show how to phrase red light communication so that it sounds as much like choice as possible. It helps children to see how their own behavior keeps them safe. However, there are times when the explicit “No,” is required – keep the “no” clearly linked to the potential safety issues. Although “stop” “don’t” “quit” and “can’t” phrases are red light words, children are more receptive if we keep the message about using our adult power to serve.

Additional healthy red light examples:

  • “No, we keep the crayons out of our mouths.”
  • “No, we must go home before late night driving begins.”
  • “Stop; it is glass and could break.”

The use of red typically comes in the form of boundaries: what is okay and what is not okay. Red in the behavior traffic light heightens alertness and activates protective factors in the realms of thinking, feeling and doing. Adults want to cultivate a healthy respect for boundaries so that the child makes safe choices on his or her own. Yet, if the red light is overused, misused or abused, there can be detrimental effects. Rather than perceiving a red light as a safety problem that needs to be solved, children can interpret it as “trouble” related. For example, when asking children about the purpose of the red light, how do they answer? If they answer “So you don’t wreck” it may indicate the child associates boundaries with safety. If they answer “So you don’t get a ticket” may indicate the child associates boundaries with getting in trouble.

Hence, a repeat of caution about the use of red light words: only for safety reasons. We want children to respond to danger with problem solving that will result in safety. Children will, otherwise, perceive Red light words as an attempt to veto their power to make choices. Such a perception automatically activates the defense mechanisms of fight, flight or freeze. Control loss could look like fight: overtly pushing in to over control. Control loss could look like flight: covertly pulling back to under control. Control loss could look like freeze: stunned in place to conserve what little control is left.

Unhealthy red light examples:

  • “Don’t play with your food.”
  • “You can’t sit in the chair like that.”
  • “Quit playing your game and do your homework.”

When anyone feels like they are in a power struggle, defense mechanisms are activated. Rather than responding with ability, children may default to reacting with revenge to keep as much control as possible. In other words, when you talk to kids in NOTs, it ties them up inside because their minds perceive a threat of loss of control. This kind of alarm hijacks the brain until it goes through the process of fight, flight or freeze. Children will be spending more time looking like they are being naughty instead of operating in the green zone.

Therefore, I say, “Nots turn into knots turn into naughties.” So, remember to use your green light words!