Anger Issues in Boys: David Thomas
Hitting. Yelling. Punching. Does your son have anger issues? Counselor David Thomas understands boys' anger—and that telling them to “stop being angry” works about as well as you'd think. Thomas offers time-tested strategies to help boys deal with powerful emotions.
Research has long told us—I think will always tell us—the two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents are too much talk and too much emotion. -- David Thomas
About the Guest
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Does your son have anger issues? Counselor David Thomas offers time-tested strategies to help boys deal with powerful emotions.
Anger Issues in Boys: David Thomas
David: Research has long told us—I think will always tell us—the two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents are too much talk and too much emotion.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
Ann: So we're eating one summer night—our boys were ten, eight, and five—and I wanted to get done with dinner so I could go mow the grass because I love mowing the grass.
Dave: Did you hear that, ladies? My wife loves to mow the grass. Guys would get all over me that “You let your wife mow”—she loves it.
Ann: I love doing it. But while our kids were eating, all the neighborhood boys would hang out at our house. I go out to mow and I'm kind of watching these, this group of five boys underneath the treehouse that you had built, and there's all this spare wood underneath and so—
Dave: It was a very safe environment for boys. [Laughter]
Ann: I'm watching, I'm watching them as I'm mowing. I'm pushing this mower and I can see that they're taking this wood and they're going 1, 2, 3, and then they would try to break this piece of wood across their foreheads.
Dave: Like a two by four; two by six, I think.
Ann: Yes. They're cheering for each other. I’m like, “What is happening right now?” They're laughing. They're all into this—and these boys range from maybe 12 to 8—and so I keep watching and all of a sudden, this kid, Mike, he's 12 years old and he takes this piece of wood, and he tries to break it over his forehead. All of a sudden, I see this blood just trickling down his face, so I turn off the mower and I said, “Guys, what are you doing?”
He goes, “Mrs. Wilson, this is amazing. Are you seeing what Mike just did?” I said “Guys, he's bleeding.” He's like, “No, but he was the best at it.” And I said, “Mike, you need to go home, and I want you to make sure”—I could tell that it wasn't that bad, but it was bleeding. I said, “Make sure you tell your mom what you have been doing.” They're like, “Yeah, do it. Do it Mike. Go tell your mom.”
And I just kept mowing, thinking, “This is the craziest thing.” If you would have told me as a young mom that this is what these boys would be doing, I was like, “Are you crazy? What kind of a child would try to do this?” And it would be some boys.
Dave: Welcome to the world of raising boys. [Laughter] And David Thomas is sitting over here. He's a counselor and he's—I mean your specialty is sort of boys, isn’t it?
David: It is.
Dave: David Thomas—
David: Everything about the story is making sense to me.
Ann: [Laughter] Is it really?
David: Yes. I remember the third trip to the ER with one of my boys, I asked the triage nurse, “Can you get frequent flyer points like you do with an airline here?” [Laughter]
Ann: And David we're talking about your book Raising Emotionally Strong Boys.
Dave: So today we thought we'd throw some questions at you.
Ann: And we might not—
Dave: Like we got a counselor in the office with us.
Ann: Yes, and we may not be able to get to all your questions, but you do have a podcast with Sissy Goff who's been in our show before, who's amazing.
David: She's remarkable.
Ann: Share a little bit what you and Sissy do.
David: Sissy and I've been friends and work together for over 25 years now. We started this podcast years ago—we’re in our fifth season at this point—where we wanted to take a lot of what we were learning just sitting in our offices, being with kids and adolescents and families day in and day out and bring that learning to that platform. It's called Raising Boys and Girls and really grateful for that platform and the opportunity to get to have some rich conversations with folks.
Ann: Let's get into the questions.
Dave: I mean, here's one. I'd start with what Ann said earlier. If you're a young mom or you have young kids, maybe you're an older mom or dad and you really are trying to understand this boy thing about that physicality, like taking a piece of wood and banging it in your forehead, that makes no sense. It's like—and especially if you've maybe you've grown up with sisters or only raised daughters, you may think there's something wrong with the kid. Well, and there could be, but often it's just the boy.
Ann: Which I have had young moms come up to me and say, “There's something wrong with my child.” And I said, “Really, like how—I'll totally pray for you. What's happening?” And she'll say, like, “I'm an only child and I have these two sons that are, you know, barely 12 months apart. And all they do is hit, they punch, they run, they're loud, they're dirty, and there's something wrong with them.” I remember saying, “You know it never hurts to get help and to get a second opinion, but it kind of sounds like they're just boys.” Is that what you would—
David: I love that you're saying that. I don't think we can say enough of that to moms. I sit daily, weekly with moms who didn't grow up with brothers—so either only had sisters or were only children—who would say “This creature feels like a foreign entity to me.” [Laughter] “Like I just don't understand so much about what's going on.” And it's why the very first book I wrote on boys was a book called Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. I just breakdown five stages of development and I talk about what's going on in each stage and what he needs from the adults in his life.
I think particularly for moms and especially again, if you didn't grow up without any brothers, it feels anything but normal. I think what instinctively will happen in those moments is that we can over parent or over discipline or set unrealistic expectations out of, again, what we know and what's familiar. I mean, we're creatures of habit. We always will be falling back when we're not even aware it's happening on what we know and what's familiar. And if boys aren't familiar, if you didn't have brothers, then it makes sense to the story you started with that you would be thinking something's wrong.
Ann: What are some tips that you would give parents with this physicality, especially in the winter when you're living up north and it's snowy and cold.
Dave: You live in Nashville; you don’t know about the winter.
Ann: You don't know this. They can't be outside and so you feel like you're going crazy.
David: You would.
Dave: And we sometimes would literally take them out and say, “We're running 100 yards,” and I'd run with them just to get all that out. And you mentioned in your book about the space.
Dave: Which I'd never heard that term before so that's another way.
David: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I would say both of the things you've just said I want you to lean into, and figuring out, how can I do that if the weather is not agreeable? And you know we don't have the extremes that you are describing in Nashville, but we have a lot of rain in the spring to where it's challenging. I remember going to the mall that's closest to our house and I would just run them around the top of the mall, and I’d create a scavenger hunt out of the stores so that there would be this release.
It's why my wife and I laugh when our boys were little, and we had to fly on a plane to see her parents out of state. Our running joke was “We don't board the plane unless everyone is sweaty.” [Laughter] We literally we're running laps in the airport. We would find some space where they could climb, run, move in a way or else it was going to be a torturous two hours on that plane, and so I think there is wisdom and to the concept of the space. I talk about it as an opportunity for a boy to release the physicality of his emotion. He doesn't just have energy in terms of his personhood, he has a lot of energy and intensity in terms of his emotional experience.
I recommend creating a space. This could be the corner of a rec room or a mud room or your garage and fill that with tactile and movement-based objects. For example, when my sons were toddlers, we had a bozo bop it. I don't know if anybody remembers that.
Ann: [Laughter] Yes.
David: It was inflatable with sand in the bottom and you could pop it and it would bounce right back up. And when they would start to have big emotions, I would say I can tell you're having big feelings, let's go to the space and they could punch that bozo bop it.
Now, I know there is a mom listening right now that is saying in her head, or maybe out loud in hearing me say that, “No, I don't want to train him to be a puncher or a hitter.” What I want you to hear me say—please hear me says this—that need for release is instinctive. It's part of how God hardwired him, so you aren't training him to be a hitter. You are creating healthy outward movement.
With kids 12 and under, they are, in terms of their cognitive development, in what we call concrete thinking, so the world is very black and white. What this would look like in the space would be I could put an oversized pillow and I could say “You can punch a pillow, but you cannot punch your sister. You can scream at a pillow, but you cannot scream at mom. You can throw a pillow down, the pillows not hurt, but you shove a person down and they are.” Do you see the concrete opportunity I'm creating in that?
Otherwise, the mistake I think we make with boys is saying things like this: “Stop being so angry,” “Quit shoving,” “Stop hitting.” We're saying what not to do, but we're not saying what to do. So that would be the equivalent of me getting on the airplane—that example I shared—without giving my boys a release and saying, “Quit squirming,” “Sit down,” constantly. It's like I didn't give him a release. Of course, it's hard to sit still. I didn't give you a healthier option of how to move that anger, how to move that frustration, how to move that disappointment in a healthier direction.
Ann: And is there at some point where then you're trying to get them to tell you what they're feeling?
Ann: When does that happen?
David: All of it happens in the same experience. I have a section in the new book that I call the ABCs of Emotional Development. It's naming, breathing, which we can come back to, and coping. Coping would be a lot of those strategies that we put in the space. But I talk about with boys, we often have to reverse that equation, so we got to do coping first, get the energy out, then some breathing to finish settling my brain and body, and then naming the feeling.
Ann: Okay, that's that makes way more sense.
David: It does. And I think we shove a feelings chart, which I'm a real advocate of feelings chart. I talk about it all through the book. But we do that when a boy's amped up with all that intensity and physicality and then he yells, “I don't know what I'm feeling. I'm just angry.”
Ann: I've done that exact same. And that's what they do. They're so amped up, like “Are you mad?” “Tell me what you're feeling” and they just think, they're yelling at me like “I don't even care.”
David: Yes, which is why using that story I told a little bit earlier with my boys when they were little “I can tell you're having big feelings,” but notice I didn't get them to try and name them. “Let's go to the space.” The whole focus was just on releasing the intensity, which is really regulation. I talk a lot about that. In fact, if there were one theme in this new book, that would be one of the primary themes is helping kids regulate their emotions, which is all the way back to, as we've been talking together over these rich conversations, you know, naming and navigating. Regulation is the navigating part. It's figuring out the, what to do with the emotions.
We’ve got to start there often with boys, the release of the intensity or the physicality and then we can get to the naming. So even there, when I talk about naming and navigating, often we're going to do the navigating first and the naming second. Because what's happening—if I were to just real briefly talk about what's going on in the brain—is that when any of us becomes emotionally charged, what happens is that blood flow moves from the front of our brain to the back—from our frontal lobes, which help us manage our emotions and think rationally, to the back of our brain, to the amygdala; that fight, flight, or freeze part.
And we try to talk to kids when they're in fight, flight, or freeze. We even try to discipline kids often when they're in fight, flight, or freeze. Discipline is designed for teaching. It's not designed for punishment, and so if we want kids to make connections to figure out, “Okay, I don't need to do this again because I'm going to get in trouble if I repeat this behavior,” if they're thinking brain is not even online, if they can't think rationally or manage their emotions, it's wasted breath.
And then the other hurdle that comes into existence is often when our kids get amped up, we match that intensity, and we get amped up.
Ann: Oh, yes.
David: So then we've got two people who don't have their thinking brain online, [Laughter] who can't think rationally or manage their emotions trying to have a thoughtful conversation together. That's a train wreck right there waiting to happen. It is why research has long told us—I think will always tell us—the two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents are too much talk and too much emotion. The two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents too much talk, too much emotion.
Think about it. We're going in to discipline in a dysregulated state and expecting a dysregulated person to make good connections about what they shouldn't do later. The primary objective, back to what I talked about, needs to be coping first, breathing second, naming last.
Ann: So you've taken them to a place where they've gotten their emotions out; they're hitting something; they can yell, whatever. Now you're taking them to this breathing exercise. Walk us through like, what's that look like?
David: We teach it by having kids trace a square on their leg. The tracing of the square is actually a grounding technique, and what it also does is it helps kids get the pace and rhythm of breathing. Because there's a tendency when we're amped up to breathe too fast, which won't slow my heart rate down, which won't move that blood flow from the back to the front.
In fact, I had a little seven-year-old boy, came into my office for his first appointment, and he said “My mom listens to your podcast all the time and she says you talk a lot about breathing. I want you to know I've tried it, and it doesn't help me.” I said, “Why don't you show me how you're doing it?” And he went [panting]. I said, “Okay, that's labor and delivery breathing. You don't need that ever, your whole life. [Laughter] So I'm going to teach you a different kind called combat breathing, which is much slower.”
And that drawing of the square helps get that slowed down. So, we're going to breathe in on one leg, breathe out on the second, breathe in on the third, breathe out on the fourth, and we're going to pause for four seconds in each. That drawing of the square is a grounding technique that automatically is going to do some settling. That slow, deep breathing, at least 20 seconds of deep breathing will begin to reset the amygdala. Isn’t it amazing God made our bodies in that way; that something as simple as breathing could start to slow down my heart rate.
I wear the Apple® watch and I'll have kids in my office watch it. “Alright, I want you to look at my heart rate right now. Do you think it's going to go up or go down when you and I breathe together?” Kids always know it's going to go down. At least 20 seconds will begin the reset. If I double that to 40, twice the benefit. If I triple it to 60 seconds, one minute of deep breathing, will do a lot of work in terms of settling. So that coping, breathing, then I can do the naming part.
Ann: What's that look like?
David: That's when we do introduce the feelings chart. And anybody listening, if you don't have one on hand, I would strongly recommend you do. I want you to do it for two reasons, and you can download one off our website. We've got them on our website raisingboysandgirls.com. You can get one there.
But the purpose there is this. You know any of you listening who have kindergarteners or first graders, think about how your kid’s classroom—I know anyone listening, whatever city, whatever state, somewhere in that space are the letters of the alphabet. Why do we have the letters of the alphabet up in those early learning spaces? Because we know as kids are learning letters, when they can see the letters, it strengthens the connection. Using a feelings chart is the same way. If I'm pointing to the expression naming the feeling, even for kids who can't even read, it's going to strengthen that connection.
The second reason I'd recommend families have a feelings chart around is that I think it is a great prompt for us as adults just to remember to fold in more emotional vocabulary in our daily lives. I'm going to challenge any parent listening, when you are sitting around the dinner table and we're asking each other those common questions like, “Hey, how was your day?” I don't want anyone listening, going forward, to say “It was fine.” [Laughter]
Dave: Not allowed.
David: Not allowed. Fine is an acronym for feelings in need of expression. That's what fine is. [Laughter] And so—
Dave: Say that again, that's good.
David: Feelings in need of expression, that's what fine is. I want you to replace that with “You know what? I felt embarrassed today. I had to give a presentation to the board of directors, and I didn't feel prepared.” “I felt sad today. I think I said something that hurt a friend or coworker’s feelings and I want to circle back and check in on them.” I want kids to get to hear that kind of reporting.
Ann: And from parents.
David: From parents, from the grown-ups they trust the most in this world. And if I were to think back to the earlier question you asked, you know just thinking about moms of young kids listening, to that point, I want to challenge—and this true for moms and dads—I want you to think about narrating your experience—that's what I call it in the book—as often as possible. Now, obviously in an age-appropriate way.
But part of going back to our earlier episode about how men were socialized, we were taught that you don't name experiences and therefore kids won't be affected by it. So, a lot of adults grew up with alcoholics in their family and no one talked about this person who drank too much, raged, sometimes threw things, and then we all pretended like it wasn't happening. We were all experiencing something when that happened, but no one gave it a name. We know now we should have named those experiences.
When we narrate our experiences in age-appropriate ways, it helps kids build emotional strength. You know we had a great tragedy in our city of Nashville recently with the Nashville shooting. My kids are away at college, and they all called home struggling with it in their own ways because they knew folks connected. The head of school was a dear friend of ours who I love, and I was even, with my 20 something year old, narrating my experience of just saying, “You know we went to Catherine’s service today. I just wept because I miss her so much. I can't believe this has happened.” And “Here's what I'm doing to figure out how to take steps forward.” Do you see how that's naming and navigating with kids? That's what narrating our experience could look like.
I had a dad of an eight-year-old daughter who told me that his daughter came home one Wednesday night from church, and she had learned this song at church about worry. He was driving to work the next day and he got a text he saw at a stop light that was some big hurdles he was going to be walking into at work. This man owns his own company. He said “I could feel my heart rate increasing in the car. I looked in the rearview mirror at this little girl I love and thought about her teaching us the song about worry last night. And I said, ‘Sweetheart, will you teach me that song about worry one more time? Because I think I'm going to need that today.’”
And his very intuitive eight-year-old daughter said, “What are you worried about, Dad?” And he said, “You remember during COVID how I shared with you that I can't get all the products I need for my company so I can get the things I want to make for my customers. I think it's happening again, and I feel worried about that.” And so she taught him the song again. She got out of the car, and he said, “I love you.” She walked back up to the window and she said, “Dad, I'm going to pray for you today about your work worries and I want you to sing that song back to yourself three times.” [Laughter] Isn’t that incredible?
Ann: It makes me cry. It's the best. I can't imagine if my dad had done that and showed that vulnerability and emotion, as a child I'm drawn to that, and it's a modeling. The modeling piece is like, “Now I know how to deal with my emotions when they're really strong or hurting or when I'm worried.” That’s beautiful.
David: Isn’t that beautiful? And it's such a picture of naming and navigating, like “This is what it looks like to feel worry as a grown up, which we all will. That's normal. And what you taught me last night is going to help me navigate it so teach me that song again so I can do that back today.”
It could be as simple as that. I want any parent listening to hear me saying, my guess is that whole conversation between that dad and daughter lasted about three minutes so I'm not assigning you extra work. I want you to use what's right in front of you. I want you to just have these conversations at the dinner table, but knowing that this is landing on the kids we love, and when they can sit front row to the grown-ups they trust the most in this world, naming and navigating, it's the best tool for helping them build emotional strength.
Ann: Ooh, we're going to start that.
Dave: Here's my encouragement to the dad and mom. As I listen to you, David, it's like everything you said, and even as you I read your book about how to raise emotionally strong boys, I thought, “Wow, this isn't for the boys as much as it is for me as a dad and for moms.” But even listening to Ann talk about her dad, who I knew well and loved—he became my dad. He was my high school coach—he never knew how to process emotions. He grew up in that generation you weren't even supposed to. It's like you're weak if you admit that, but here's the beauty. His daughter's doing it. His son-in-law is doing it.
David: Yes, yes.
Dave: And so often we think, I didn't get it, so I can't pass it on. Guess what? You can change the legacy with knowledge and understanding and humbleness to say, “God, please change me so that I can pass this on to my kids.” That's hopeful. It's like, yes, don't be the victim and say, “Well, I didn't get it, so I guess it's just going to be I'm going to pass on what I didn't get.” No, no, no, I can start right now and say what I didn't get. I'm going to find. I'm going to name it. I'm going to navigate it, and I'm going to raise boys that are doing that someday themselves, and they are.
Shelby: It's so important for me to know that I'm personally in a season with my kids, who are currently 12 and 9, and I'm one of the most important grown-ups in their life. Yes, it's a season, and that season might shift soon—excuse me while I cry my eyes out—but I can take advantage of that season and I'm going to. What an important reminder today.
I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David Thomas on FamilyLife Today. David's written a book called Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build on for Life. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com or give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, the number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are back again with David Thomas as he talks to us about addressing unhealthy family dynamics through open and honest communication. That's tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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