Today’s blog post is brought to you by author Cherilyn Orr. Orr developed The Stoplight Approach, which is based on the latest research in brain science as well as her years of experience as a teacher (early childhood, primary, special needs), as a mom to seven children and as a foster mom. Her practical, simple, hands-on approach to understanding the emotional health and relational needs of children has helped hundreds of parents, caregivers and teachers build strong, healthy relationships with their children and their students. She works with families and educators in Canada, Uganda, Greece and England. Cherilyn and her husband, Mark, currently live in Athens, Greece, with their four youngest children.

Dear Weary Parent,

I stayed up too late last night cleaning sticky juice off a dirty kitchen floor surrounded by the mess of the day. I knew I needed to get to bed. I also knew I didn’t want to wake up to the mess. Now here I am, at the beginning of another day, responsible for guiding tiny humans through life, and I am physically and emotionally exhausted. I feel like I have nothing to give, like I am failing again.

It takes me back to that day a decade ago when I got my first glimpse into how our brains work. My daughter had thrown herself onto the floor in yet another rage over homework. Exhausted, I knew I was in for another hour of trying every trick that 15 years of parenting had taught me to get her back to the table. Imagine my shock when my friend Marilyn stepped in and had her back at the table working away in just ten minutes! “Our brains are like a stoplight,” Marilyn said. “We have to understand and respond to the signals they send.”

This was my introduction to the Stoplight Approach and understanding how God created the brain. In simple terms, there is a Red Brain, a Yellow Brain, and a Green Brain, and each has its own needs and its own signals to communicate those needs. While each area is important in certain contexts, we learn, grow, laugh and love in Green Brain. I discovered that by keeping myself in Green and helping my children get and stay in Green, I had a better chance of accomplishing my ultimate goal of raising mature, socially responsible and emotionally healthy children. It was so different from trying to control my children with punishments and rewards (I was the reward queen: treasure box, stickers, movie nights, etc.). In this new approach, my focus was now on my relationship with my child. Obedience is a result of connection, not control.

And I have learned some skills to help me on days like today. I’m going to watch for the signals that I’m headed into Yellow or even Red Brain, and I have tools to handle each situation. When I am in Red or Yellow, I have a Green Plan to help get me back to Green Brain.

I needed my Green Plan today – it involved taking a walk. As I walked and prayed, I opened my heart to receive God’s presence and, most of all, to listen to his quiet voice. His voice that says, “I am not a condemning God, but a God of mercy. Cherilyn, I love you just as you are. You are my beloved child, and even though you feel unseen, unheard and unvalued, I want you to open your heart to be vulnerable with me because I am your safety. I can handle all your big emotions. I will never abandon you or leave you alone.” In that quiet space away from the chaos for those few minutes, God and I connected, and he met the needs of my Yellow Brain. I still need to figure out how to get to bed earlier tonight, but I’m ready for the next moment now.

I love how interacting with my children using the Stoplight Approach mirrors the way God interacts with me! For example, the 5-10-5 Rule: Every child needs five minutes of connection when they wake up, 10 minutes after school and five minutes before bed. This helps each child to feel seen, heard and valued, which in turn impacts the child’s behaviour. It is not an easy task. For some of my children it happens naturally, while with others, because of age or personality, it is hard to find those moments.

Churches throughout history have their own version of the 5-10-5 Rule in the liturgy of morning and evening prayers. So I take time morning, afternoon and evening to pause in my activities and open my heart for connection to God. I may understand the science of the brain, yet it is the Creator of the brain that I need to connect with to make it through today.

God has given me Stoplight, a very simple tool with language I can use for myself and my children. I can read the signals my or my children’s brains send, and I have tools to get us back to Green. I don’t want to be a Yellow parent, because science confirms that when I am stressed, I can’t have a healthy relationship with my children. Even though I deeply love my children, they will not feel loved if I am in Yellow or Red.

Should I have left the juice on the floor and gone to bed earlier? I don’t know, but I do know I have the knowledge and tools I need to be a connected parent today. Parenting is not a calling for the faint of heart. As a mom of older kids and younger ones, I know there are no “easy” stages of life. But the Stoplight Approach has changed my relationship with my husband, my children and my God – which is why I wrote the book Signals. I want to pass that help and hope on to other weary parents. One day there will be no colouring on the walls, no juice on the floor, and the rooms will echo, but there will be a child who has known love and connection and is passing that on to others. What better legacy could I ask for?

Cherilyn Orr