Freeman Medical Musings Blog


The Behavior Traffic Light: The Foundation

Posted by Dr. Kimberly Fielding, on March 25, 2015

“My body’s my car, and I’m licensed to steer.” - Jamie Lee Curtis, It’s Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work My Control Panel

For me, the quote above, a fun little quip nestled within the pages of a children’s book, has sparked a whole series of integrated metaphors. These metaphors all revolve around the idea of a traffic light as applied to children’s mental health issues. The subsequent blogs will include the following topics, with each able to stand on its own but also work together with the other blog segments.

Here is the foundation of the metaphor: traffic lights signal to the drivers what to do with their cars – go, stop or yield. The behavior traffic light, likewise, is a metaphor for how children and families can manage thinking, feeling and doing, i.e., behavior choices. The purpose of this mental health symbol is to help your family understand and manage a range of emotions, which often drive behavior choices. The ability to manage thinking, feeling and doing is important because what happens in the body affects the mind, and what happens in the mind affects the body. Teaching children about steering their bodies and emotions is good for the health of both body and mind.

From a clinical perspective, as children and adults practice this metaphor, it reinforces internal processes that then help with external change. Using the behavior traffic light is a great way to explain the concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy to those not familiar with the language of mental health, potentially replacing jargon and sterile terminology that is sometimes used.

Both adults and children can benefit from the behavior traffic light metaphor. One benefit of using this metaphor is that children and adults can easily internalize the lessons because they are already familiar with traffic lights. Lesson after lesson with positive experiences releases reinforcements via feel-good hormones. These electrical and chemical processes act like the glue to keep the body and mind connected in a healthy way.

Just as traffic control signs send messages to drivers about what to do with cars, it’s important for parents to communicate to their children in a way that promotes receptivity. Caregivers can encourage learning about managing emotions and explain how everyday living includes experiencing a range of comfortable and uncomfortable feelings. These messages from caregivers have benefits for the children, and adults benefit as well by responding intentionally. Such deliberate leadership cultivates child followership. With this relationship intact, progressing through the lessons of the behavior traffic light can embody the message “you are important and your life has purpose.” A caring but firm approach is calming for the child and adult, and feel-good hormones from the brain reinforce this strategy, acting like dabs of glue.

By glue, I am referring to the connection the brain makes between the inside and the outside world. The brain – an organ in the body just like the heart and lungs – is the control center of the internal and external signals of the body. Inside, the brain needs feel-good hormones to be aware and connect what is happening with thinking, feeling and doing. The brain pays attention to what is happening; the mouth, hands and feet simply do what the mind says. It is amazing how the exterior body is available to express the interior thinking and feeling. Using the behavior traffic light is one way to make sure the brain and its feel-good hormones stay in control at all time.

Otherwise, feelings try to take over traffic control. Feelings are healthy when they stay in the role of letting us know we have some internal thoughts and/or we've got some external action choices to make. Just as the engine of a car burns fuel to travel, feelings are temporary bursts of energy that give fuel for people to act. So, if a person has high octane feelings going on, they will burn hot and make decisions based on those heated bursts of energy. That can lead to difficulty with psychosocial functioning. Equally, a person running on empty in the feelings department might make feelings-based decisions that lead to underachieving, which is another type of psychosocial functioning problem. Feelings go up and down, and so do the levels of energy that go with them. These impulses can try to take over traffic control; those temporary bursts of energy do not make for good glue. Yet, with a strong internal behavior traffic light in place, children and adults can react appropriately when feelings of importance and purpose are challenged. This type of good mental health results helps us problem solve and become resilient, thus helping us make appropriate behavior choices during times of emotional distress.

The bottom line of the behavior traffic light: action choices should be based on a mind that is fully active with both thinking and feeling processes. The goal is to respond to life rather than reacting with impulses. The plan is to have the light be constantly “on” so responding in situations is standard practice as compared to having to resist the impulses as if a light switch is flipped on suddenly. Just as children need help with the learning process of driving a car, they need help with learning managing emotions.

I’d like to end this introduction of the behavior traffic light metaphor with a caveat: children start out with a “permit” to drive. As such, it is necessary that adults guide children in the process of becoming happy, healthy and safe participants in the adult world of good mental health and psychosocial functioning.