• Karla Benzl MD

Be Mindful of "The Green Zone”

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

My favorite parenting authors include Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. If you have not read No-Drama Discipline, The Whole Brain Child, or The Yes Brain, I highly recommend these reads. These authors are mental health providers and have helped many families through their research and clinical expertise. What I appreciate most from these authors is their emphases on helping children build coping skills. All too often, parents lose patience with their children in times where loving, parental support is most needed. According to the authors of The Yes Brain (and I agree), kids misbehave mostly “because they can’t control their emotions and bodies right then, not because they won’t.”

Children often “act out” when they feel disconnected, overwhelmed, or stressed. During these times, they cannot put feelings into words or meaningful actions. (The same is true for many adults, no?). Although children can definitely push buttons, often times, their “misbehavior” is a sign of being so overwhelmed that they lose control or shutdown. Keep in mind the three stress responses innate in all people (and animals): fight, flight, or freeze. If you think of your child’s behavior in the context of these common stress responses, you will be more equipped to help them learn the skills to navigate challenging situations. I find the following categorizations from YES Brain Child to be helpful:

Green Zone- this refers to a “balanced brain.” A child in the “green zone” is flexible, and able to regulate his/her body and emotions. The nervous system is in balance. The parasympathetic nervous system refers to the ‘rest and digest,’ calming and restorative part of the nervous system. It is more prominent during times of safety. The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘fight or flight or freeze’ part of the nervous system. It is responsible for arousal, and is more prominent during times of stress. The child in the green zone has a good balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity. He/she is neither aggressive, nor withdrawn. He/she is able to navigate stress, remain flexible, calm, and in control. A child in the green zone is open to learning and able to relate to the world around her/him.

Red Zone- refers to a child who is in a hyper aroused state. A child’s sympathetic nervous system is kicking in, so he/she is in fight or flight mode. This results in acting out, aggression, tantrums, yelling. All kids have at some point been in the red zone.

Blue Zone – refers to a child who is in a “hypo aroused” state. This child has shut down. In this state, a child is withdrawn, quiet, rigid, or floppy. This is analogous to the “freeze or faint” response to stress. This is a stress response turned inward. In its most extreme form (related to trauma), there is dissociation (a sensation of leaving the body).

So how does this categorization help? Learning to identify if your child is in the red zone or blue zone can lead to more empathy in challenging situations. The authors of The Yes Brain assert that parents can help children stay in the green zone as often as possible. This involves developing emotional awareness and coping skills to deal with stress or frustrations. In this way, “misbehavior” is not seen as something to punish children for. Instead, it is a sign that a child lacks particular skills and is not staying in the green zone. In addition, it is helpful to evaluate the current stressors contributing to the behavior. Is the child tired, hungry, sad? Is the child going through a transition? Is there tension in the home?

The antidote to misbehavior is often connection. What kids need most when displaying their most turbulent behavior is empathy, safety, connection, and soothing. Prior to trouble shooting a solution to the problematic behavior, they need to calm down. I recommend the "time-in" tool kit from GenerationMindful (Genmindful.com) to aid in this process.

Bryson, TP. Siegel, DJ. The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child. Bantam Books, NY, 2018.

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