Emotional Tools Your Son Can Build On for Life: David Thomas
What emotional skills does your son need? Counselor David Thomas sheds light on common emotional struggles, including anger, anxiety, and depression. Find practical ways you can help your son be resourceful, aware, resilient, and empathetic—breaking patterns of dysfunction and embracing maturity for life.
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What emotional skills does your son need? Counselor David Thomas sheds light on common struggles and ways to help your son embrace emotional maturity.
Emotional Tools Your Son Can Build On for Life: David Thomas
David: Somewhere around nine to ten, boys begin to channel all primary emotions—fear, anger, sadness, disappointment—into one emotion, and that one emotion is anger.
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 Today!
Dave: So we discovered yesterday on the program that when you married me, you married an adolescent boy. [Laughter] How did you feel about learning that? Of course, here’s the thing. I think you already knew it. I just learned yesterday, wow! I was not just immature; I was like an adolescent in my early 20s.
Ann: Hon, I thought you were amazing in every way.
Dave: You were—
Ann: I never thought that. It was an interesting conversation, though.
Dave: I’m just bringing it up because we have David Thomas back in the studio with us, who’s a therapist and a counselor in Nashville. He enlightened me to some things about men and boys. David, welcome back.
David: Thank you for having me back. I’m right there with you. We discovered that I, too, was an adolescent when I got married, so we share that in common. [Laughter]
Dave: We’re laughing about it because you wrote this amazing book. We have three sons and now grandkids, so we thought, “We have to pass this on.” So we’ve been handing this out to everybody, Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build On for Life.
Ann: Now I’m thinking back on our conversations when we first got married, and we were young. I was 19; Dave was 22. But I can remember asking you, “What are you feeling about all this?” And Dave would often say, “I have no idea. I have no idea.”
Dave: She would say, “Yes, you do. You just don’t want to tell me,” and so we’d get in fights. I honestly didn’t know. I had never even answered that question. You talked about that yesterday. So let’s talk about emotionally unhealthy—could be men or women.
Dave: But we’re adults now, and we have responsibilities to maybe be a parent. How were we going to raise emotionally strong sons if we’re not emotionally strong ourselves?
David: That connection between the head and the heart is not something I believe men were trained to understand, particularly men of certain generations. My grandfather is a perfect example. My grandfather was wildly successful in the work he did as a builder. My grandfather fought in the war, came home from the war having seen friends who died in front of him. He came home and was to go right back to work at that point.
There weren’t resources in place, there wasn’t support in place, there wasn’t an invitation to say, “You have witnessed trauma, and there needs to be a space where you can talk about that and figure out what it looks like to live forward in light of that and not carry it.” I think it is why there are so many men of that generation in particular, who lived in pain, and as a result caused pain. I think it’s part of the wisdom of that age-old saying, “Hurt people hurt people.”
I’ve talked about in this book that males who were in pain often caused pain. I talk about how internal pain has an external presentation of some kind, which is why I think adult men lead the stats for substance abuse. So to the degree that we don’t learn the name and navigate, it will show up in some way. I think about the wisdom of that passage that says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” It will come out in some way.
Ann: When you say, “Name,” name what? What are you referring to?
David: I think name the feeling. Name the experience. Internal pain always has an external presentation, and to the degree that we can’t name and navigate that, it’s going to come out sideways in some ways. It could be overachieving, it could be an eating disorder, it could be addiction.
Ann: When it comes out in other ways, in a pornography addiction, in anger—
Ann: Anger’s a big one. That’s when, as a wife, and especially with boys, we don’t know how to navigate that.
David: Yes, and I think it does show up that way for a lot of adult men. I will hear wives speak to that being the primary evidence of when he’s just in the normal day-to-day parenting, the discipline has too much intensity. His words are fueled with so much anger and internal pain, external presentation of some kind. I think it really starts with the foundational acknowledgement that we are made as emotional beings, every one of us.
In the beginning of the book I have a chapter on foundation and identity, and anchoring boys to an accurate definition of what it means to be a man in this world, which we should never be defining outside of the person of Christ, just Who He was. If we think about His human experience, we’re told throughout Scripture there’s all kinds of evidence of where He felt the different emotions that we feel throughout His life here on earth.
And that Jesus, though He was a man Who was mocked, abused, abandoned, crucified—the worst of human experiences—that He didn’t go off the rails. He was able to deal with the circumstances of His life on earth with humility, with civility, with strength, with emotional strength, all these things that I talk so much about. So I think it starts there, just acknowledging we’re made as emotional beings. So therefore our job is to learn the name and navigate that.
Ann: Would you say that, then, to your little boys? Would you teach them that?
David: I would.
Ann: And you probably do that in your practice.
David: Absolutely. I think it needs to start there with boys, and then this may feel a little surprising for parents listening to hear, but please stay with me. With adolescent boys, I want to go ahead and share those scary statistics we talked about on the front side of our conversation, the first episode. In fact, I have some stats on page 73 of this book, that I encourage parents to read to adolescent boys. I think boys need to go into adolescence understanding, “Hey, here’s the vulnerabilities for males in this world.”
Ann: Will you read those to us?
David: I would be glad to, absolutely. We’re going to go back to some of these realities that we briefly previewed in episode one that I think are my starting point. I have a whole section on anxiety and depression, and within that I talk about how the American Journal of Men’s Health says that depression and suicide are ranked as a leading cause of death among men.
Six million men are impacted by depression in the United States every single year. Globally, on average—so around the globe—one man dies by suicide every minute of every day. Men are often reluctant to openly discuss their health or how they feel about the impact of significant life events. Men are more reluctant to take action when they don’t feel physically or mentally well. They resist support and help, and they experience greater amounts of hopelessness and despair.
I think those are just important facts that we want to arm boys with, particularly in adolescence to understand, “Okay, these are the realities.” No different than, we have this great data on hand that we’ve now known for quite some time that it’s important to talk with adolescents about a history of substance abuse, if that exists in your family, to let those kids know, “You are more vulnerable to addiction.”
“So where a person over here might drink a beer and that’s all they want, based on our family history the likelihood of you doing that is not very great.” We don’t help kids by keeping that information away from them, but by arming them. I think this is kind of a similar philosophy, of “Let’s just talk about these hard realities.” That’s not a scare tactic, but it’s just this reality of “We need to be informed and know these are some vulnerabilities that exist. We’re going to have to work harder.”
Again, it goes all the way back to the front side of development. We have fewer words. If I were to lastly just build on that, I would say this: Somewhere around nine to ten, boys begin to channel all primary emotions—fear, anger, sadness, disappointment—into one emotion, and that one emotion is anger.
If I have fewer words on the front side of development, and then at some point a little farther down the road in development I’m going to start channeling everything toward anger, and then a little farther down the road, my tendency to shove things down and not ask for help is greater than it is for the females around me, we have more work to do in this emotional space with the boys we love.
Ann: I think, as the listeners; I’m thinking as a mom, that all feels overwhelming and scary to even read those stats. I’m imagining you and your wife reading those stats to your twin sons.
Ann: What did you say after that? Parents are like, “Okay, I can read those. Now what? So you’re susceptible to these things. Where’s the hope?”
David: First I would say to any mom listening, who’s immediately going to a place of “I feel overwhelmed,” I end every chapter of this book—I committed to my editor, “I’m ending every chapter with five practical ways you can put these ideas into practice. We’re not waiting to the end of the book. Every chapter is going to end with five easy things that parents could be doing in the moment, putting these principles into practice. So I don’t want them to feel overwhelmed.”
The bigger hope for me is, I have a great story in this book that I absolutely love about a single mom who had struggled with anxiety over the course of her life. She said to her son, who was starting to show signs of that, “You know, buddy. I want to tell you that if you were to struggle with worry and anxiety like I have over the course of my life, I’m so thankful that we live in a time where we know what to do with that.”
“I know a lot of great skills and strategies to teach you so that you can—” this was her line, which I love, and I’m borrowing it from this wise single mom, “So that you can carry it with God throughout your life.”
I love that language, because it communicated, “If this goes on, and anxiety is not something that just magically just goes away at your 18th or your 21st birthday, but if you struggle with this in different seasons ongoing, there are good skills and strategies that we know that you can implement in the day to day, and you will always be able to carry this with God. You’re not alone. You need God every day, all day, and we need community.”
Some of the healthiest parents I have worked with in my 25 years of doing this work are parents in recovery. I think they’re some of the healthiest, because they live under the principles of the 12 steps, which means I start every day by acknowledging I struggle, and I need God, and I need community. Wouldn’t we all be better if we lived from that starting point every day?
David: Those things are true for every one of us, whether addiction is part of our story or not. We all need God; we all need community. We all need to wake up and start from a place of acknowledging, “I have a need.”
Ann: Dave, you were talking about how you feel like you weren’t very good at this, but as a mom, I’ve realized I parented often in fear. I called one of our sons, who was away at school, and I had asked him an opinion on something, and he said, “Mom, I’m processing some stuff, and I just can’t talk right now.” As a mom, I’m like, “What do you mean, ‘processing stuff’? What kind of things are your processing?”
And he said, “It just feels like you are always trying to fix me. You’re always afraid that I was going to fail or do something.” Not “fail,” because he’s very driven, but “fail” in terms morally, or drinking, or partying. He said, “I just need to process some of the pain that I went through growing up, of trying to be perfect for you.” I started crying, because I realized even that moment I started defending myself. “Well, hon, it’s because I love you so much. It’s because I see how amazing you are, and blah, blah, blah.” He said, “But mom, sometimes I just need to tell you that I’m struggling and you don’t have to fix it. You don’t have to fix me, Mom.”
As a mom, we love our kids so much, and dads do too. We hate for them to be in pain, so instead of letting him be in his pain, I’m trying to throw the life jacket on him and say, “You’re fine,” for my own sake. I wish that I would have allowed him to be in his pain, to admit and talk about my own pain, and then not have to fix him. Is that normal for us to hate our kids to be in that pain?
David: Absolutely, it is. I want to first say to you, what a gift that you could come to him in that kind of humility and listen and let him say all of what he needed to say.
Ann: I wasn’t very nice at first. [Laughter]
David: Of course. And it does bring about that instinct of “I want you to know what all was going on behind the scenes,” And what was primarily going on is exactly what you’re asking, is that there’s not a parent alive who enjoys seeing their kids struggle in any way. It pulls on the deepest parts of who we are, and we want to take away the pain. So I think everything about that makes sense to me.
I think even back to that story of that wise mom. Watching my kids in their own different ways learn to carry struggle with God has been one of the greatest challenges of my parenting, to step back and allow some of that to happen, to know that it is preparing them for their adult lives, to walk with God, to need God. When we had lunch today, you shared this beautiful story with me about one of your sons and the way you allowed something to happen in his life that you now can see the fruit of, how it deepened his faith, and how it connected some dots for him.
I think for any parent listening, I would want to remind you of that as I’m reminding myself of that right now, that everything in me wants to fix and do and change and renovate and add a whole list of words to that, and the ultimate goal is that I would equip my kids so that they can walk with God and carry their struggle and their children’s struggle, and their grandchildren’s struggle with God when I’m no longer here at some point. It is all about the equipping.
Our friend, Dan Allender, talks about this relationship being transformative. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, and the best thing I have ever done, too.
Dave: We sort of thought, I think a lot of us parents think, when they are raised and we send them off, we’re done. And we’re not. It’s a different phase of parenting. We wrote a parenting book and talk about four seasons. The last season is this adult-to-adult. One of the things that I have found fascinating about this season, which is also very hard, is they come to you now as adult men or adult women if you had daughters, and they speak out things that you did that hurt them, or let them down, or failed them.
And that’s hard to hear, but it’s necessary for them to do that. I did the same with my parents. Now they’re doing it with us, and we can do what Ann was saying, and say, “Yes, but I—” Instead we should just listen, and realize that, in your words, David, what’s happening is they’re naming and navigating as an adult man or woman now.
Dave: That’s exactly what our job is as parents, is to equip them in such a way that they can do that, rather than cut them off because we’re trying to save our self-esteem and say, “We did a good job,” rather than saying, “Yes. I’m sorry for that, and in some ways I’m watching you mature because of that.” Is that true?
David: Absolutely. And I think it’s even part of that desire that I think exists for every one of us as parents, that our kids would outperform us, not just vocationally. But I want my kids to do a better job of parenting than I did.
Ann: Me too.
David: I want them to live out so many different parts of their lives differently. If we’re really doing our job, that’s always the great hope, that we would get to see some evidence and fruit of that. I have already seen some evidence of that. My sons outperform me at 20, in some places. It’s mind-blowing to me, and it excites me.
David: It excites me to think they’re figuring some things out earlier than I did, and I’m grateful for that. I want that.
Dave: Yes. We got on the plane, flying back from spending a weekend with one of our sons and their kids, and Ann said to me, “He is such a good husband and dad.” I know what she was really saying: “He is a better man at that age than you were.”
Dave: No, it wasn’t a cutdown at all, but that’s what I saw. It was like, “He is better.” Times a hundred, that I was at the same age, and that is not like I’m jealous. It’s like, “Thank you, Jesus.” That’s what we’re called to do; that is a beautiful thing to see.
Ann: I remember as he dropped us off at the airport, we both laid our hands on him and prayed for him, and just thanked God for the things that we had seen in him. It hasn’t been easy, and he struggled, but to see him surrendering his life and his family to Jesus, that’s what we all long for as parents. You’re right, Dave. I don’t think it’s ever too late to apologize. I remember saying to another son this past week, “I’m really sorry that you were feeling so lonely in high school. That must have been really hard for you.”
I said, “I don’t know what I would have done, but I wish I would have done a better job at that. That must have felt so lonely.” For him just to say, “It was. It was really hard.” And for me just to let it sit there.
David: Yes, it’s so hard, isn’t it?
David: But I think what’s happening in those moments, which is even in keeping with the conversation we’re sharing about our kids doing better than we did—I think about those wise words of “Whatever we don’t transform we will inevitably transmit,” and I think there is incredible truth to that. So it’s like if I’m working to transform some things, if I’m working to try and do better than my grandfather could do, because I have more to work with—we know more at this point along the way—
—and then my hope is my boys can do better than I am, too, then I’m not just transmitting things. I’m working to try to name and navigate things differently than my grandfather knew to do, and my father was able to do better than him. And I hopefully have raised sons who will know how to do it even better than I could. So I love the legacy of that, even as you’re talking. It does take a lot of—I think to your great story—sitting and listening and figuring out how not to speak at times.
Ann: I’m so bad at that. [Laughter]
David: I know. Aren’t we all? I think we’re being trained against that in this world more than ever. I think it’s one of the worst parts of technology and social media, in particular, is that we’re just invited to comment in real time all the time, like everything needs my opinion or my input in some way.
So I talk about how we’re being trained against regulation, and I worry about that for kids of this generation who are growing up with that, believing that I somehow need to give input to that at all times, when the reality all of us know, wisdom means sometimes I don’t need to say a word. I just need to sit in that and listen, and there’s nothing needed to contribute to it except silence and humility.
Shelby: Dave Wilson is going to give a word of encouragement for parents here in just a second, so stick around for that. But first, I was just thinking as I was listening to this that Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” One translation of this that I heard recently was, “If one answers before he listens, he is both stupid and rude.” I love it when the Bible gets up in your face about that. Maybe we all need to be a little bit more quiet, and not comment on every single thing that we see or hear with others, especially those who might be closest to us.
I’m Shelby Abbott and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David Thomas on FamilyLife Today. David Thomas has written a book called Raising Emotionally Strong Boys. It’s an important book that talks about shedding light on common emotional struggles, including anger, anxiety, and depression in boys. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329.
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Alright, here’s Dave Wilson with a word of encouragement for parents.
Dave: David, when you just said, “What isn’t transformed is transmitted,” I just want to say to the dad, and Ann could speak to the mom if you want.
Ann: Yes, I was going to say “Ann to the mom.”
Dave: It’s either one. If you’re walking in some struggle, and we all are. I often thought, “I’ve got to get a grip on this for me.” I never thought, “I have to win this battle for my legacy.” Here’s what I know now. This isn’t just about you. If you don’t let God transform your pain or your struggle, it will be passed on. It’s Exodus 20: “The sins of the father will visit the third and fourth generation.” At the same time, the righteous man will see his legacy blessed for a thousand generations.
So I just want to remind you. If you’re listening and are thinking, “I’m going to deal with that tomorrow,” don’t wait. You have to get help; you have to tell somebody, get a counselor, get a buddy, get another woman. Get it out of the dark, into the light. Get God working in this area, because this isn’t just about you. This is about your son going to deal with the same thing, or your daughter. I just want to encourage you as one man who’s been there and still walking that road: don’t wait. Start the healthy, healing process right now.
Shelby: Now tomorrow Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be joined in the studio by me. Yes, that’s me, Shelby Abbott. I had a chance to interview a woman named Dani Treweek. She’s talking about the oh-so-sensitive subject of singleness. I’ll be unpacking my conversation with her as she talks about shifting the focus in singleness to Jesus, finding meaning amid cultural pressures, and embracing singleness for God’s glory. It’s a fantastic conversation that you won’t want to miss.
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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