Teaching kids how to calm their emotions: The Stoplight ApproachWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Some kids can dish up more drama than prime-time TV. When angry or frustrated, they’ll fling toys against the wall, lay into a sibling with a one-two punch, or hurl themselves to the floor and wail like a fire alarm.
Quieter kids, on the other hand, may sulk over disappointments alone in their room, stewing in negative self-talk.
While these kinds of reactions to strong feelings aren’t unusual in young children, none of these responses are healthy or helpful in the long run. We want our precious kids to be able to rise far above such self-defeating behaviour.
From the toddler years on up, we need to be teaching our kids how to stay in the driver’s seat: how to remain in control of their emotions so immature behaviour that hurts and offends others doesn’t become a life-long pattern. These are some of the very practical skills kids need if they are to “put on love” and live in harmony with others (Colossians 3:12-14), and they're skills that bring lasting rewards (Proverbs 21:21).
Three steps in the learning process
So where do we start when it comes to teaching our kids to manage their emotions well? It begins with baby steps.
From as young as two years old, kids need to be taught how to correctly name their emotions – how to use the right labels to talk about how they are feeling. (Here’s a free emotions chart to help.)
From that simple foundation, kids can advance to the second step of building self-awareness. They need to learn how each emotion feels in their body, and how to recognize when their feelings are becoming particularly intense or overwhelming.
Kids must have that keen self-awareness to be able to reach step three, where they have the emotional maturity to start putting the brakes on their runaway emotions. Although they may feel like yelling or slamming doors, they can begin to choose more helpful behaviours and respond to others from a place of respectful self-control.
Building self-awareness with a traffic light analogy
Does it sound difficult – the idea of coaching kids toward better awareness of the intensity of their emotions? Cherilyn Orr, an education consultant and adjunct professor at Vanguard College in Edmonton, has seen kids make great progress after teaching them – and their caregivers – the simple analogy of a traffic light.
Orr’s traffic light concept, the foundation of The Stoplight Approach, encourages kids to think about their emotional state as like the colours of a traffic light, with each colour giving them a helpful signal about what to do next.
Red means stop and seek help to calm your feelings
Kids can readily understand that strong emotions like rage or fear are like their brain sending their body a red light warning. And they can learn how “red” feels in their body.
They may feel:
- their heart start pounding
- their breathing quicken
- their muscles tighten
- like they want to scream or fight or
- like they are frozen in fear or
- like they want to run away.
Yellow means slow down and be careful
Something has made the child stressed or irritable, and it’s as if their brain is sending their body a yellow light warning that they are in danger of flipping to red and possibly hurting or upsetting others.
With help, kids can learn to “check-in with their body” to see if they’re feeling:
- left out or ignored.
Green means go right on doing whatever they are doing – green is the best state to be in.
When their brain is giving their body the “green light,” kids are typically feeling:
- able to problem solve
- ready to learn.
As you can probably already appreciate, the great benefit of the traffic light concept is its simplicity; kids can quickly grasp the principles and recall the “stop” and “caution” warnings even at times when they’re really worked up.
Getting to green: Helping kids soothe their emotions
Very often parents wait until their child is upset to start teaching the child how to manage their emotions. But that approach is inherently flawed.
A child in a red emotional state is typically already overtaken by their emotions – they’re often already out of control. Their higher brain functions have shut down, making rational thought and learning from a parent’s instruction exceptionally difficult.
A child in red needs at least 20 minutes to calm down before they can return to a green frame of mind.
So what’s a parent to do when their child is in flaming red? It’s all about preparation and practice ahead of time, says Orr.
Explaining the Stoplight philosophy in her book, The Stoplight Approach for Parents, Orr urges parents to frequently coach kids before there’s an upset, reminding them about the traffic light “warning lights,” emphasizing the importance of taking time to calm down to green so we’re “safe” for others to be around, and familiarizing kids with a number of self-calming strategies.
It may take time to find the calm-down strategy that works best for your child, says Orr. And different situations may call for different strategies.
“Each child is different, with specific needs and desires. Some children might prefer and appreciate physical closeness from their parents . . . . There are other children who need space to process and calm down, separating themselves but still receiving emotional safety from their parents.”
Many of the most effective calming strategies involve rhythmic movement, notes Orr. Here are some calm-down strategies you may want to try with your child – some suggested by Orr and some from others:
Calm-down strategies with parent present and engaged
- Rocking child back and forth
- Giving a back rub
- Giving a foot rub
- Going for a walk together
Calm-down strategies for kids who need personal space
- Swinging on a swing or hammock
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Shooting hoops
Over time, with repetition, urging your child to pause and calm down before an incident escalates further will start to feel natural to both you and your child. How does it work in practice? Simply invite them into a calm-down time by saying something like this:
I can see that you're frustrated. I would be too if someone moved my belongings and I couldn't find them. But it's not okay to storm through the house yelling accusations at everyone. Go shoot some hoops till you've calmed down, then we can talk about this.
Wrapping it all in positive parenting
The traffic light analogy has proven that it’s powerful for helping kids regulate their emotions. It’s being taught in Uganda, England, Haiti, Canada, the United States and in refugee camps in Greece.
And while the traffic light model does significantly help kids, that’s not its most important benefit.
The greater goal of the Stoplight Approach as a whole is to help a parent stay in control of their own emotions as they’re trying to train their child. Because it’s a natural reaction for a parent, faced with a child who is in a red state, to also flip to red, and to feel their own anger or frustration begin to take over. Yet losing our temper over our kid’s poor choices and poor self-control is modeling the very opposite of what we’re trying to teach them!
Just as for kids, The Stoplight Approach coaches parents to heed their own body’s “traffic light warnings” when they’re sliding into a red state and take steps as follows:
stop when you feel your anger or frustration rising and realize that you are “emotionally unsafe” for your child right now
- take some deep breaths
slow down your thoughts and think about what kind of parenting will best preserve your relationship with your child in this situation
- take some time to calm down while your child is also calming down
- don’t talk the situation over with your child until you are both in green.
A better option than traditional discipline
More than anything else, the intent behind the Stoplight Approach is to help a parent stay composed during a child’s misbehaviour or meltdown so they can interact with the child in ways that keep the child feeling loved and valued throughout the course of the upsetting incident.
Putting it all together, here’s what the steps might look like when a child is acting inappropriately or out of control:
- parent and child both recall the traffic light analogy to help manage their rising emotions
- parent invites the child into a calm-down period (while showing they have empathy for their child)
- parent and child reconnect and restore their relationship, with the parent taking time to hear from the child their thoughts and feelings that led to the upset, then the parent and child discuss what more appropriate behaviour would have looked like
- parent decides what form of training is most appropriate for the situation: having the child ask forgiveness, write a note of apology, practice with a re-do, bear a consequence, think of a way to make it up to someone else, or some other measure.
Maintaining emotional safety for the child, explains Orr, is what makes the Stoplight Approach far superior to traditional forms of discipline. The child’s heart stays warm toward the parent, keeping the child ready to cooperate with the parent and learn better skills.
In contrast, traditional disciplinary methods that rely on anger-motivated punishment to change a child’s behaviour present a number of problems. Most importantly:
- immediate punishment creates feelings of rejection and alienation in the child, often escalating their defiance, pushing them further into red, and fracturing their relationship with their parent
- enforcing a punishment is not skills training – punishment does not teach a child the skills they need to manage their emotions more effectively next time.
“A parent’s words and actions can create a sense of safety, love and value; or a sense of fear, hatred and disrespect,” says Orr. “. . . To be an effective parent, physical and emotional safety for both ourselves and our children is crucial. We must use words and actions that communicate respect, dignity and delight to our children.”
Orr’s book, The Stoplight Approach for Parents, goes much further than this and will be of value to parents raising kids of any age. Among many additional insights expounded in the book is a commendable emphasis on follow-up steps that teach children how to repair relationships with others they have upset.
For more about The Stoplight Approach, including informative video clips and books for teachers and kids too, visit TheStoplightApproach.org.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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