FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Helping Kids Navigate Intense Emotions: Sissy Goff & David Thomas

with David Thomas, Sissy Goff | June 11, 2024
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Could your behavior be affecting your children's emotions? Sissy Goff and David Thomas explore how parental strategies might contribute to child anxiety.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Could your behavior be affecting your children’s emotions? Sissy Goff and David Thomas explore how parental strategies might contribute to child anxiety.

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Helping Kids Navigate Intense Emotions: Sissy Goff & David Thomas

With David Thomas, Sissy Goff
June 11, 2024
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David: We think about “regulate first, talk second.” It reminds us [that] all discipline should happen last, because that’s part of the talk part, and discipline is designed for teaching, not for punishment. If we think about it as teaching, we want kids to be able to make good connections. Well, they can’t make good connections if their thinking brain is not online.

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

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Ann: I had a bad grandparenting moment not too long ago.

Dave: You didn’t know it was a bad moment when it happened.

Ann: No. I was crushed—crushed. We have quite a few grandchildren. We have [numbers] six and seven on the way.

Dave: By the way, we’re telling the story to two therapists [Laughter] who can counsel us through this.

Ann: I’m actually sitting on their couch.

Dave: Yes, literally, we are on their couch. They’re on a couch, too, so maybe we can counsel them.

Ann: No.

Dave: David Thomas and Sissy Goff; we are at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, their home office, upstairs. I tell you what, this is really a beautiful space.

Ann: It sure is.

Dave: Not just for counseling, but for family and home—

Ann: —I just want to lie here and pour my guts out, don’t you? [Laughter]

Dave: That’s why you’re telling your little—

Ann: —that’s why I’m telling this story!

Sissy: Aww.

Ann: So, we had a grandson, he’s a preschooler—they were going to have their little Christmas play, and they were going to sing. Dave and I were traveling a lot, so when I’m home, I’m with them quite a bit. I told him, “I am so excited about this for you. This is so fun! I can’t wait to see you.” And then, I’d see him again: “Are you excited? I can’t wait to see you.”

I don’t think I understand the intensity that I carry. You know, every once in a while, I’d see him and say, “Hey, it’s only four more days!” It got to the day of the performance, and he said to his dad, “I don’t want Noni to come.”

Sissy: Oh!

Ann: I was crushed, lying on the floor crying.

Sissy: Of course you were.

Ann: I felt so rejected!

Sissy, you’re such a good therapist.

Sissy: Oh.

Ann: I said to Dave, “See? I do this. It’s my intensity. I’m all excited.” My heart means well, but I probably had him feeling so anxious by the time the performance came, wondering, “Should I be happy? Should I be excited like Noni? Am I going to disappoint her? Am I—?”

I had never thought of that, actually, David, until I heard you on a podcast—on the Don’t Mom Alone podcast with Heather MacFadyen. When you said some of the things that can create anxiety in kids, I thought, “There it is. There it is.” It wasn’t necessarily a rejection of me, because I kept thinking, “What did I do?”

I realized he was feeling the pressure of that.

Dave: It got built up.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: I think you went and hid in the rafters somewhere.

Ann: But he wanted his other grandma to come.

Sissy: Noooo.

Ann: I thought, “Oooohhhh.” It was awful! But that was helpful for me to listen to some of the things we talked about yesterday, about well-meaning statements—

Sissy: —yes—

Ann: —that we can make as parents, but that can create a little angst and anxiety in our kids or grandkids.

Dave: Okay, so counsel us. What happened there?

Sissy: Well, of course you wanted to be there, and of course, you’re excited to talk to him about it.

Ann: Right.

Sissy: Yes; and I loved your statement of, “I don’t think I realize how much intensity I carry.” The same is true about me, Ann. I don’t think I’m aware of how much intensity I carry.

Ann: Dave has told me. [Laughter]

Dave: Oh, maybe a few times.

Sissy: Which is great. I’m so grateful.

Ann: Yes.

Sissy: We could talk about, even, the science behind it. It’s funny, because I think, even when it’s positive, sometimes our intensity translates to anxiety.

Excitement can also be that kind of intensity. There are even mirror neurons that are happening in our brains when we learn things; that we aren’t just learning to tie our shoes because of mirror neurons, of watching someone else do it, or learning how to water ski, but we’re also learning to be anxious when someone around us—we absorb the anxiety.

It’s not what you meant, but—

Ann: —no.

Sissy: —I think that’s a great reminder—Shauna Niequist has a story in her new book where she talks about [how] one of the greatest skills we can learn is to “dial up and dial down” intensity.

Ann: Oh, that’s so good.

Sissy: Because it’s so important. It’s a lot of your giftedness.

Ann: Yes, yes.

Sissy: It’s why you make us feel like a million bucks—

David: —yes.

Sissy: —every time we’re around you. I’m not joking; I mean that. It’s a beautiful part of who you are.

Ann: It was good for our son. He said, “Mom, sometimes you need to chill out!”

Dave: [Laughter] That’s what he said?

Ann: But for you to say, “Turn it down”—it’s good for us, as parents, to know, “When do I chill it down, and when do I turn it up?”

Sissy: Yes.

Ann: What do you think, David? How do you do that?

David: It reminds me of the rich conversation we shared about the importance of doing our own work and being open to those things that we may not see as clearly. I want you to hear me say, too, parent to parent, “I’m with you.”

I had a conversation with my daughter just this Christmas break, who is in her twenties, to say, “I hope to goodness you will talk in counseling about what it was like to deal with my intensity growing up.” I’m a reformer. I’m a perfectionist. I walk in every room, and I see what’s wrong first and not what is right. There is no way that did not spill out onto my children all throughout their growing up.

Dave: Right, right.

David: And that they felt that, experienced that, absorbed that, and the intensity that comes with that. I love your transparency in telling that story. I’m right there with you. It’s that long game of, “How can I pay more attention to that so that I’m not living out of blind spots?”

Ann: That’s good.

David: And I’m aware and figuring out practices. For me, as a reformer, I figured out with my boys, all throughout their adolescence—I have twin boys. They shared a room. Can you even imagine what that room looked like and smelled like with two teenage boys who played a lot of sports? [Laughter]

I would walk in their room and immediately see dirty clothes over there, beds that aren’t made over there, and it would be, sometimes, the first thing that I would call out. I developed a practice of saying to my wife, “I’m going to stop going in their room so much. It’s not helping me. I think it’s harming the relationship. I don’t want our relationship to be defined so much by [me] saying, ‘Hey guys, bring the dirty clothes downstairs,’ or ‘Hey, that stack of clean clothes that your mom brought up is about to touch the ceiling.’ I just don’t want to keep talking about those things, because I love them so much, and I don’t want our relationship to be defined around my intensity, around seeing, noticing, and sometimes calling out those things.”

Dave: What if you're the parent, and you don’t see it, and your spouse does? You just said that you saw it. I’m not talking about Ann; I’m just talking about any parent that is not able to see it or is unwilling and the spouse does.

Ann: Oh, yes. How do you guys coach him along?

David: I will say sometimes to parents, for one—going back to—I loved the story that you all shared, when we talked before, of being in different places with your kids and recognizing those differences and figuring out: “How could we meet in the middle more?” Between “I’m not going to pay enough attention,” and “I’m going to pay too much attention.”

Dave: Yes.

David: In these moments, they don’t just need to hear from one of us; they need to hear from both of us. When we talked about escape and avoidance last time as it relates to anxiety—I talk sometimes to parents about [how] I think the opposite of that is the equation of support and challenge. I think, as people, we instinctively lean more toward one or the other.

Dave: Yes.

David: There are people who think, “I’m really good at challenge. I can help you set some goals. I’m not always so good at support and just sitting in it.” And I think if that’s true for two parents in different places, how could the parent who’s really good at challenge learn to listen more and listen longer?

Dave: Yes, that’s good.

David: I had a mom who told me, “I’m so good at challenge that I have to set a timer when I sit on my son’s bed for three minutes that I just don’t talk, I just listen. Otherwise, I’ll immediately—”

Ann: That’s just wise!

David: Yes.

Sissy: Yes, it is wise.

David: Isn’t that great? That’s a basic practice. That’s how she's learning to give more support before she jumps into that instinctive challenge.

Sissy: I would add: I think I can hear anything from anyone if they believe the best about me.

David: Yes!

Dave: That’s good.

Ann: Oooohhh.

Sissy: If they see that I’m trying hard, then they can say anything. So, maybe it is even thinking, “How can I approach my partner in this to say, ‘Hey, I can see you’re trying and you’ve done such an amazing job with ______, and I was wondering if you had thought about (whatever the other thing is)?” When somebody sees that about us, I think it makes us so much more open to hear and willing to listen.

Ann: In our marriage, I got into a practice, because I’m a verbal processor and words kind of just flow out, and when I talked, I usually just said what I was thinking. And that is not always great. I mean, Scripture says, “The power of life and death is in the tongue.” [Proverbs 18:21]

Sissy: Right.

Ann: I got in that habit of saying (and asking God), “God, should I say this? When should I say It?” and “How should I say this?” if He says, “Yes.” I think that practice with kids—

Sissy: —yes.

Ann: —I need the self-control to do that, because we become so reactive instead of responsive—

David and Sissy: Yes.

Ann: —when we just go there so quickly, and that’s my personality; but it’s hard to do that as parents.

Sissy: Yes, yes.

Dave: Yes, and I think, again, you’ve said it several times: your spouse can be that buffer to help you support and challenge; both.

Sissy: Yes.

Dave: But if you don’t have one, it’s a whole different ball game. My mom was all by herself, and no one was really giving her anything, so I got whatever I got. If she hadn’t processed her wounds, guess what? They’re coming on to me. I know, as we said yesterday, as I became a dad, I had so many wounds that I was almost afraid to engage, because that way, I could keep my pain that I hadn’t really dealt with from them; and that caused more pain, right? So, what do you say to that guy?

David: I love the words of Fred Rogers, who once said, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” I love those words. I think, if we were to think in the wisdom of that: “If I can just learn to say it, if I can learn to talk about it, it’s manageable; but whatever I can't talk about, I can’t manage.” It’s not manageable, it’s just out there, and it gets bigger and scarier. I have found that to be incredibly true for a lot of boys, adolescent males, and adult men that I’ve worked with. I think it’s harder, sometimes, to mention that pain, but we can’t tame it.

Dave: Yes, that’s good.

Sissy: And can see, again, as we talked about yesterday, God’s redemptive hand. And we can’t see the redemption if we’re not willing to talk about the harder aspects of it. There’s the gospel right there.

Ann: Sissy, I just had a young mom reach out to me. She has four kids. She said, “I have a four-year-old that is screaming, having these absolute fits.” She’s lashing out, saying things to the mom. The mom is saying, “I don’t even know where this came from. I don’t know what to do!” She [the daughter] is hiding in the closet saying, “I want to die.” The mom loves Jesus! And she says, “I have no idea what’s going on or what to do.”

I could feel the anxiety in the mom saying, “I don't even know what’s happening or what to do.”

Sissy: Yes, yes.

Ann: You guys are facing that, probably, all the time with the stories that you hear.

Sissy: Yes.

Ann: I didn’t know what to say to that mom. What should I have said?

Sissy: I feel like we talk to her, probably, every day.

Ann: Do you?

Sissy: Yes. We hear that story all the time with young ones who can’t yet verbalize: “Here’s where I am emotionally. Can you help?”

Ann: Yes; so, that could be normal for them—

Sissy: —yes, very normal.

Ann: —to not be able to regulate.

Sissy: Yes, yes. And I think, in this day and time of anxiety being such an epidemic among kids, it’s even more normal. My hunch would be that that girl has some anxiety; either has some anxiety or has some sensory issues or both.

Ann: If it were a boy would your answer be different?

David and Sissy: Not necessarily.

Ann: Okay.

Sissy: What we know to be true is that all behavior from kids is communication. So, everything that’s happening with them in terms of acting out is [them] trying to tell us something that we need from us in those moments. In those moments, that little girl is saying, “I don’t know how to get control of myself.”

What I know to do—I had a girl who said, in my office this week, “It was so helpful for me when I could explode at my parents, because if I could drag them into the same intensity with me, then I had a release for my emotions.”

Ann: Oh.

Sissy: For that girl, she doesn’t know what to do in those moments. She feels anxious because she thought she had five more minutes to watch a show, and her mom said, “No, we’ve got to turn that off now.” Or she thought she had a little bit more time before bed.

I talked to another family this week who said, “We think our daughter is so entitled, because she wants to go get a treat every day after school.” This mom said, “We’re not going to do that as a family. We’re not going to Chick-fil-A everyday.” And it wasn’t about Chick-fil-A. It was about how, for this little girl, routine made her feel safe.

Ann: Oh.

Sissy: Changing up the routine made her anxious. So, my hunch is there is something with that little girl that is moving her to her amygdala, the part of our brain that dictates fight or flight—

Ann: —yes—

Sissy: —which is what happens any time we’re anxious. When our amygdala has hijacked our prefrontal cortex, we can’t think rationally or manage our emotions. She can’t do that in that moment. So, I would encourage that mom if she was in my office:

number one, encourage her to start to try to document when it happens. What are the circumstances around it?

Ann: Would you do that with a boy, too, David?

David: Yes.

Ann: Okay.

Sissy: If it’s transitions or unpredictability, or if it’s seams in their socks—the amount of girls who will only wear leggings or dresses, and won’t wear jeans. [Laughter] Or if it’s some kind of texture, then, really, where I would start with that child is for them to do Occupational Therapy first.

Ann: Really?

Sissy: Because they can help them regulate that sensory input; but, if we’re leaning toward anxiety, or really, with any kids, I think what we want to think about is [that] we start with co-regulation: “Honey, I can tell you’re starting to get upset.” Down on her level: “I can tell you are getting frustrated right now. I want you to take three really deep breaths with me.”

Ann: And what if they just yell and say, “No!”

Sissy: I think, at that point, you get away from them.

Ann: Okay.

Sissy: Because they’re using you to be their coping strategy rather than trying to develop them on their own.

Ann: Oh.

Sissy: So, get away from them; don’t let them have that emotional release by drawing you into an argument. At four, you’ve got to think about ways to do that that are safe.

Ann: Right; yes.

Sissy: But with a lot of parents of little ones, I’ll have them start to reward any positive coping strategy. So, any time they take a deep breath, they get a “Brave Bead.”

Ann: Oh.

Sissy: They can trade the “Brave Beads” in for something else. Or any time they can use grounding techniques, basic things we do with kids who are anxious—“Tell me ten things in the room that are the color blue,” anything that is a positive coping strategy; going to squeeze a stress ball or jump up and down or run around the house or something to have an outlet: “You can earn a Brave Bead, and you can trade ten Brave Beads in for a page of stickers. You can trade twenty-five in for staying up fifteen minutes later. You can trade fifty in for a special date with mom or dad.”

Or little bitty ones, we probably need sooner tokens. Go to the dollar aisle at Target and get thirty things that they can just come get when they do something like that. But, often, kids don’t have the internal motivation to use the tools we try to give them. Until they do, we need to put external motivators in place.

Ann: I like that. Let me ask you—this is very practical, but I’m talking to a lot of young moms these days—

Sissy: —yes.

Ann: Do you ever go back—once they’ve regulated, and they’re settled down, and things are fine, do you ever go back—to what they said, which was horrible? Do we ever go back to that? You’re both [nodding] your heads, “Yes.”

David: Yes.

Sissy: Absolutely.

Ann: What does that look like?

David: Well, I think it’s the wisdom of everything Sissy has been talking about. All the focus and attention in the beginning needs to be on regulation. We talk so much about “regulate first, talk second.” And we tend to reverse the two.

Ann: Yes.

David: So, think back to what you shared on the front side of the story. What happens for so many kids—and, honestly, can happen for us as parents, too; we call them dysregulated declarations. For example, “I’m flooded with emotions, and I’m going to say this big, scary thing like, ‘I hate everyone in this family!’” [Laughter] “‘I wish I could just die.’ ‘I should never have been born!’”

Ann: That freaks parents out, right there.

David: “I have no friends.”

Sissy: Of course, it does!

David: Absolutely; absolutely. And in those moments, we tend to start talking first and regulating last, and we should reverse it. We say things like, “Why would you say that? You are loved. Everyone in this family—,” you know? And they are—to everything Sissy just said, they are—acting out of their amygdala. So, their thinking brain is not even online; they can’t make good connections. So, we want all the focus to be on regulation first, whether they are four or fourteen or forty-four.

Ann: Wow.

David: The mistake we make, the parent version of that is: I’m amped up, my kids do something, and I say, “You’re grounded for life!” You know? And then, I have to go back. “I’m selling your cell phone at the pawn shop.” [Laughter] And then we have to go back.

Ann: I’ve made some really good statements like that. [Laughter]

David: Oh, yes! I had a dad who said recently—he was telling me this story that he had asked his son to do three things, and he said, “Tonight, when you go to bed, I’m going to set the Xbox on fire.” He said, “David, who threatens pyromania?” [Laughter] That’s a dysregulated declaration. We shouldn’t be talking at all. We should be regulating first and then going back.

Dave: What does regulation look like for the parent? Is it settle down, take three deep breaths? All the same things?

David: Often, some of the exact same things.

Sissy: All the same things.

David: Yes.

Sissy: Yes, exactly.

David: And the beauty of kids getting to see us do that!

Dave: Yes.

David: We talk about kids learning more from observation than information. So, if they can sit front row, and watch the adults they trust the most taking deep breaths—

Dave: You’re modeling.

David: Saying things like, “I can’t talk right now, because I feel a lot of big feelings on the inside.”

I had a dad who said, “I’m going to run laps around the house, and then I’ll come back, and we’ll check in in five minutes.” [Laughter] And I love that his son got to watch that.

Sissy: Yes.

Ann: Yes!

David: This sense of: “I’m going to regulate myself, and then we’ll talk. Otherwise, I’m more prone to saying things that I would later regret or have to go back and redo.”

And I think, to your great question, too, if we think about “regulate first, talk second,” it reminds us [that] “all discipline should happen last.” That’s part of the talk part. Discipline is designed for teaching, not for punishment. If we think about it as teaching, we want kids to be able to make good connections. Well, they can’t make good connections if their thinking brain is not online. So, in order for all that to happen, we’ve got to regulate first.

And to Sissy’s wisdom, we’ve got to practice regulation; no different than we have to practice riding a bike, swimming in a pool, shooting hoops. It’s not t something we just get overnight.

Ann: So, Sissy, should we go back to that daughter in the closet who said all these horrible things? Do we go back and address the things that we said? What does that sound like?

Sissy: I love to come up with a name for the voice they have in their heads, like “the worry monster,” or I had a little girl one time named Addy, and she called hers “Maddy,” because she would get really mad.

To say, “Hey, I think that Maddy was talking instead of you,” or “I think that was the Worry Monster telling you that you were not going to be okay if you didn’t get ten more minutes to play the game before you had to go to bed. And my hunch is you said some things you didn’t mean. Tell me about that. What do you think happened?”

See if she will say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that! I hate it when I do that myself.” I mean, even to say, not just, “You said mean things,” but “You said some big things like ‘I don’t want to be alive’ or ‘I want to hurt myself’ or something like that, and I’m always going to take that really seriously.”

“So, let’s come up with some things you can say to me when you start to feel upset. Let’s talk about where you feel it in your body first. And when you start to feel that way, I want you to tell me; then we’re going to do something different, because I don’t think you like it when you get to that place either.”

Ann: Good.

Sissy: “And if I try to take a break, and you can’t get there yourself, we might do something to help you get there next time. It might be that you go run a lap around the house, or you go jump on the mini-trampoline for a few minutes, or you do something to help yourself slow down.”

Ann: Those are good.

I really think, too, that when I pull away, it gives me a chance to take a breath and to pray.

Sissy: Yes.

Ann: In James, when it talks about God giving us wisdom generously [James 1:5], He does that.

Sissy: Yes.

Ann: And to take that breath, to self-regulate as an adult, and to pray for God’s wisdom: “Lord, how should I deal with this? What does this look like?” He hears those prayers.

Sissy: Yes, yes.

David: Yes!

Dave: Yes, and I know you’ve already said this, but probably one of the wisest things we learned to do is: “Don’t talk yet.” Like you said, don’t start with talking, because that’s where you go first.

Ann: I’m so good at it, though. [Laughter]

Dave: Same thing in conflict: “Listen.” I’ve read that one of the biggest complaints of teenagers is, “My mom and dad—my parents—don’t listen.”

Sissy: Yes.

Dave: And we don’t! I know I don't, right? You see this every single day, I’m sure. Are you counseling parents as much as you are the kids?

David: We do a lot of what we call “parent consultations,” where parents come in even without kids and ask great questions like, “Does this sound normal? Should I be concerned about this? What are things I could be doing?”

Ann: Oh, I would have gone to you guys! I would have said, “Hey! I’m here again. I was here yesterday.” [Laughter]

David: We love that work with parents—

Sissy: —we do.

David: —because we sit with so many intentional parents of kids of all ages. And the beauty of technology in this day and age is, we can do those by Zoom with parents all over the country and just have conversations around ways they want to be more intentional with the kids they love.

And, often, to our earlier conversation, it does lead to: “Sounds like that might be a little bit more about you than about your kids.”

Dave: Yes.

David: So, looking at what it might look like to be open to doing some work for themselves.

Dave: We’re Dave and Ann Wilson. and you’ve been listening to FamilyLife Today.

Ann: We’ve been talking with Sissy Goff and David Thomas. David’s written a book called Raising Emotionally Strong Boys, and you can get a copy at Sissy’s written a book called The Worry-Free Parent: Living in Confidence So Your Kids Can, Too.


Dave: When you partner financially with FamilyLife to help more conversations like today’s get into more homes, we want to send you a copy of her book as our thanks.

Ann: You can partner with us at or by calling 800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Dave: Or you can mail us your donation at:


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Ann: And thanks for listening. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

Dave: FamilyLife Today is a donor-supported production of FamilyLife®, a Cru® Ministry.

Ann: Helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.


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