As I was recently reading a book my sister-in-law suggested, Are My Kids on Track, I came across a suggestion the author uses in his therapy practice called the “yellow light” system. The idea behind this to help our kids (and ourselves) pause and make a proactive change before we do something that has a reactive consequence.
I’d been noticing a trend in our household where kids weren’t listening to us (or one another), or someone would go from moderately upset to very angry without much time in between. This was happening to each one of us on a daily basis, and I noticed a hopeless feeling creep into my heart. Is this how things would always be when we’re all together for long periods of time?
Thankfully, I’d discovered this “yellow light” exercise where the author talked about self-regulation and its importance in our lives. I then realized that I was not a model citizen of self-regulating my emotions. My family of origin lived in a constant power struggle, where you passed off your strong, negative emotion to those around you and that’s how you “self-regulated.”
Fast forward to what had been happening around here, and I was seeing the same pattern emerge: I would be angry and pass it off to my husband. He would get frustrated and pass it off to our kids. One of our kids would be upset and shout at me. And around and around we went. My phrase was, “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to take it out on others.” While I knew this in theory, my brain was not listening to that piece of advice when I was out of relational mode and dumping it on my husband.
I was not living out what my words were trying to say. As Chris Coursey puts it in his new book, The Joy Switch, “When our relational circuits go off and we shift into enemy mode, we lose access to the part of the brain in charge of noticing our body. We are unable to track how we are coming across to other people.”
This is exactly what was happening – we were not able to track how we were coming across to one another when we were all in enemy mode. And no one was self-regulating those strong emotions before they went off the deep end into relational damage mode.
Here’s how we’ve implemented the “yellow light” system in our home. Simply put, when one family member notices another falling out of relational mode and going into enemy mode, we gently say, “yellow light.” This is our cue to slow down, pay attention to our breathing and our bodies, and put the “brakes” on whatever emotion is bubbling up. This also gives us a moment to get back into relational mode and take a different approach.
What’s amazing about this, is that it’s a non-offensive way to help someone listen to their body and it’s working! My husband and I were having a disagreement, and in the moment I couldn’t feel it, but my relational circuits were turning off and I was growing in volume and intensity with my words and body language. He gently said, “yellow light,” and I realized what was happening. I took a deep breath, got back online, and was then able to finish what I needed to say in a calmer, still upset, but non angry tone.
This exercise has been great for me personally, to stay present and realize that I’m going off the relational track. I’m not able to catch myself going off the track every time, but I’m learning and getting better at noticing it for myself. I’m thankful for family, and for grace, where we can all relationally learn together.