February 15, 2024

How Worried Should Parents Be?

Inside This Episode

Between school shootings, online predators, bullying, and the raging culture war, it’s hard not to worry about our children. But as veteran counselor and parenting expert Sissy Goff warns, worry is contagious; the over-anxious parent will give rise to an over-anxious child. In this episode, Sissy shares practical tips for breaking this vicious cycle, all of which begin with parents first addressing their own excessive worry. 

Want to share your thoughts? Send an email to [email protected]!

Read Sissy’s latest book: The Worry-Free Parent

Listen to Sissy’s podcast: Raising Boys & Girls

Join The Community

Maybe God Newsletter

  • Be the first to know about new episodes
  • Exclusive content
  • Resources to help you reconstruct and grow your faith


Julie Mirlicourtois: On this episode of Maybe God, she's one of America's most trusted voices when it comes to parenting and raising kids.

Sissy Goff: In a two-parent household, there's often an anxious parent and a non-anxious parent, and the non-anxious parent is usually dismissed. Not to call anyone out.

Eric Huffman: Like from the house?

Sissy Goff: Yeah. No, from the conversation. Like, "You're not paying enough attention. You don't understand what's going on. You don't know how hard kindergarten is. You don't know how hard the SAT is." But what the research went on to say is how important the non-anxious parent is.

Julie Mirlicourtois: Veteran counselor and bestselling author Sissy Goff explains how anxiety can spread from parent to child and why, in an increasingly anxious world, it's more important than ever before that parents get their own anxious feelings in check.

Sissy Goff: One of the things that happen is the more often I become anxious, the more likely I am to become anxious because my amygdala enlarges and it develops this hyper-responsiveness. And so anxiety starts to lie to me and make me believe it's true, which is completely what we would say Satan does.

Eric Huffman: He's the father of lies.

Sissy Goff: Exactly.

Julie Mirlicourtois: That's today on Maybe God.

[00:01:18] <music>

Eric Huffman: You're listening to Maybe God. I'm Eric Huffman. Sissy Goff, child and parent counselor for 30 years now and author of 13 books, here with us on the Maybe God podcast to talk about her latest book, The Worry-Free Parent. I'm so honored to have you here, Sissy. Thanks for joining us on Maybe God.

Sissy Goff: I'm so honored to be with you, Eric. Thanks for having me.

Eric Huffman: Of course. I've been blown away. I shared a little bit with you about the response from our listeners upon hearing that you're going to join us. Been blown away by how many emails and social media engagements we've gotten just by dropping your name.

Sissy Goff: Oh, I'm so glad.

Eric Huffman: Oh, I'm honored. I know you've got a lot going on, but could you just maybe share a little bit about what you think it is about your work that's breaking through, especially with our female listeners, but really with everyone? What is it, do you think, that you're offering that people are hungry for?

Sissy Goff: Well, I can tell you what I hope I'm offering, and maybe it's landing. I'm a part of a team. Our work is called Raising Boys and Girls Together, and we had written a book called Are My Kids on Track?, I don't know how many years ago, 10 years ago maybe now.

And I had a little section on anxiety in kids, and my publisher came to me and said, "Would you write a book for young girls about anxiety? Because it sounds like that the average age of onset used to be eight, it's dropped to six with signs as young as four and five." And I, as a therapist for all these years said, "I'd be happy to write a book for little girls if I can write one for parents too."

Then those books came out, and six months later, the pandemic hit. And then I ended up writing one for adolescents. And then now I'm, in all these years, worried about parents maybe the most. So I've written one for parents. So maybe because I'm sitting with kids and families every day, and it makes me a little more privy to where they're struggling and what's going on.

My hope is always to offer a lot of practical help, but also a lot of grace, because I don't think it's ever been as hard to grow up. I don't think it's ever been as hard to parent. And there are a million voices coming at parents today. And I think a lot of them that just add to the pressure. And I want my voice to be one that really alleviates it and says, "You're doing great. I'm cheering you on." I think that's what I say more than anything else. Maybe that's why people have attached.

Eric Huffman: Those words matched with your smile, which is just a radiant sort of comforting smile. You have a comforting presence. And I think in an anxious world, I mean, it speaks volumes. So I'm grateful for all that you're doing and all the lives you're touching.

It's so interesting to me what you've just said — I think you're right — that it is in many ways extremely difficult, maybe more than ever, to raise well-adjusted, happy kids. And people are feeling that pressure. I don't know exactly why it's that way.

Before we get too deep into the weeds, we will go there in a second. Just tell us a little bit about your practice. I know you're in Nashville, but it sounds like your practice, Daystar, is just reaching thousands of people every year, and it just sounds like an extraordinary thing. So talk a little bit about that.

Sissy Goff: Well, it's a really neat place. I feel very privileged. I moved to Nashville to go to grad school at Vanderbilt, and I did my internship in 1993 at Daystar. And they offered me a job, and I have been stuck ever since. I can't imagine being anywhere else.

Because we're working so much with kids, our office is in a little yellow house with a white picket fence. And we have 13 humans on staff, but we have five dogs who are most of the kids who come, it's their favorite therapists. We do individual counseling. We do group counseling. We have a little retreat program called Hopetown in the summers.

It just offers a lot of different facets of the counseling experience. I mean, if you were to walk in, we have popcorn popping in the kitchen. I mean, it's just super relational. We're trying to make it as disarming as we can, because so many kids are afraid to go.

My favorite quote, a little girl walked out of our building after the first time with her mom, and she said, "You know, Mom, I'm not going to Daystar for counseling. I'm just going there to talk about my problems." Which I love.

Eric Huffman: Mission accomplished. Yeah, that's great.

Sissy Goff: Yes, exactly. So, you know, I think when you're thinking about working with kids, those aspects of it are just so important. It's a really magical place. Plus getting to take your dog to work and working with kids all day. I mean, it doesn't get much better than that.

Eric Huffman: Right. And I know, from following you on social media, that you've recently lost a dear, precious pup, Lucy, 15 years old, I think. Just as sweet as she could be by all the looks of her and having not met her in person, it seems like she was quite the extraordinary pup. So tell us a little bit about... first of all, I'm sorry about that loss. I know it's profound to lose a pet.

Sissy Goff: Thank you.

Eric Huffman: But what is the role of the dog in the therapy sort of environment? What does that accomplish?

Sissy Goff: I think it's a lot of the softening process. Lucy had this really great trick where if I held her the right way and I said, "Lucy, wave, she would wave at the kids with both of her paws." I think as many kids that come in that feel afraid to come in and be able to sit on the floor. I mean, anybody under the age of 12, their first appointment, I would always sit on the floor with them. We would play with Lucy, pet her.

Then there's not the threatening eyeball-to-eyeball. I'm sitting with this grownup I've never met. In my book for elementary-age girls called Braver, Stronger, Smarter, I wrote about Lucy a lot. And so she has touched a lot of girls all over the world, which makes it even harder.

I was speaking in Tuscaloosa this weekend, and a mom came up and had me sign her book to her daughter. And I said, "Have you told her about Lucy?" And she said, "I can't even bring myself to do it. She's attached to her so much." I told stories about Lucy and anxiety and working through her fear and being brave and had all these pictures of her in superhero capes. So she touched a lot of kids over the years.

Eric Huffman: Well, that's awesome. I know your heart's broken, but I pray that you experience some healing. You've got a new baby pup already, and hopefully that pup brings you a lot of joy as well. But Lucy is irreplaceable, obviously.

Sissy Goff: Oh, no. Thank you, Eric. You're so kind.

Eric Huffman: One word that you used to describe Lucy's role in your work was consistency. And not just in your work, but in your life. I remember you in a social media post saying something about what a consistent love the love of a dog is.

I think that speaks a lot about our need for consistency in a world that's increasingly anxious and the consistency of the love of a dog. Cat people are just totally lost. They don't even know. They have no idea what they're missing.

Sissy Goff: I agree.

Eric Huffman: But the consistency of it speaks to us in a way that like, look, the world's crazy sometimes, but it's going to be okay. Like some things are the same and some things never change. And, you know, love is one of them. I think that's deeper than it would seem, the role of a dog like Lucy in that environment.

Sissy Goff: The amount of kids over the years who've said things. I can remember one girl specifically who had lost her dad, and she said, "You know, the person I talk to the most about it is my dog."

Eric Huffman: You're gonna make me cry now.

Sissy Goff: Exactly. I'm sorry.

Eric Huffman: No.

Sissy Goff: But I love how you said that. I think it's so true.

Eric Huffman: So you've been doing this work for 30 years now, and I'm just curious, it's been a pretty wild 30 years relative to, you know, in historical terms, these past 30 years have been extraordinary technologically and, you know, in terms of things going on in the world. What are you seeing different that has changed now versus when you started in this work in terms of what presenting symptoms and issues kids are bringing?

Sissy Goff: I mean, I would have to top the list with anxiety. It is just rampant anymore. It's one in four kids are dealing with it, one in three adolescents. Girls are twice as likely as boys to struggle with it. And I think part of why your female audience maybe responded when you announced, because one in three adults, and women are twice as likely to deal with anxiety. So that feels like it is leading the charge in terms of why people are coming in to see us. And then I think a lack of self-regulation too, particularly among boys, that feels really significant.

Eric Huffman: Interesting. Why do you think anxiety is on the rise today? Are there any specific sort of sources?

Sissy Goff: Definitely. I think there are several. But one of the things I read in researching The Worry-Free Parent book was that anxiety is a response to cumulative stress over time. I mean, the fact that we have lived through a global pandemic that no one, you know, that we know has ever lived through, none of our parents, grandparents. The stress we lived with during that.

And that continues to ripple over. I mean, I'm seeing more social anxiety still as a result of the pandemic than I've ever seen. So I think that's a part of it. I think overscheduling. I think we're doing too much culturally. I think that is definitely a piece of it. We don't have enough downtime.

I remember I was working with a girl with a psychiatrist, both of us were working with her, and she was struggling a lot with anxiety. And she said, "Sissy, even to look at our devices, our brains are being bombarded by stimulation all the time." That's moving really fast. And she said, "It is difficult for our brains to settle back down after that." And she said, especially a brain that's still developing does not know how to do it. So it really mimics an anxious state when we're being bombarded that much.

I mean, I have been saying a lot lately to parents that I want them to be really careful who they're following on social media, because I think that sense of pressure, the amount of people, even like me, that are setting ourselves up as experts that all have different opinions. And I'm trying to say to parents, pick two people and only follow two in terms of parenting or decorating or whatever it is, because the inundation of voices makes us feel like we're not getting it right that much more. So I think that complicates it.

Sissy Goff: I can relate to that. I'm currently trying to learn how to play golf, and I'm in my 40s. I should know how to play golf by now, and I don't. And I'm getting advice from five or six different people at the same time. And you would be surprised the intricacies of something as silly as a golf swing.

Sissy Goff: Oh no, yes.

Eric Huffman: And it's freaking me out, Sissy.

Sissy Goff: I get it.

Eric Huffman: It's freaking me out.

Sissy Goff: I'm sure.

Eric Huffman: Because I can't get it right, depending on who I'm talking to at any given time.

Sissy Goff: And they're telling you all different things about your stance and all the stuff, I'm sure.

Eric Huffman: So you're saying in this world of constant information, this steady stream of information, people are getting... they're looking for help, but they're getting conflicting advice. And if you get one person's advice right and apply it, you're getting someone else's wrong and you're getting that... you know, it's clear how that could induce more anxiety.

Sissy Goff: Yes. I think my mom the only parenting person she listened to was Dr. Spock. I think all he really said was, "Smile at your babies." It was a little simpler back then.

Eric Huffman: Right. Those were the days, right, when we just stuffed all our stuff away and didn't deal with it. So the only question I would have about, you know, the pandemic and technology is like the pandemic and technology, all of that seems to equally affect boys and girls, but girls and women seem to be especially vulnerable to this anxiety problem. Why do you think that is?

Sissy Goff: Well, if I were going to start with girls, I mean, girls are leading the statistics. Boys are more likely to get help. I wrote a book called Raising Worry-Free Girls, and I talk about this continuum from imploders to exploders. The exploders feel anxious, and it comes out as anger, it comes out as demandingness. They just get really big with the emotions.

Now, if our guys on staff at Daystar were going to overgeneralize, they would say most boys lean towards being explosive. Whereas I would say most girls lean towards being implosive. They're the kids that parents go to the parent-teacher conference and the teacher says, "I wish every child in my class was just like your daughter because she's trying so hard."

And in fact, anxiety and intelligence are really closely linked. So these girls are really smart, and they're really capable, and they want to please, and they're trying hard. And so not only are they anxious about getting it right, but because they want to please, they are going to lean towards what we would historically have considered more positive emotions. Happy, grateful, proud, all those kind of things.

Now, emotions we know are just data, they're not positive and negative, but girls are going to lean that way. So they're not going to be as likely to talk about disappointment and hurt and anger because they feel like those things aren't good and they're not being good.

So like you were talking about stuffing, I mean, they are stuffing a lot of those emotions. I think it starts young and it lasts for a really long time. And I think for a lot of adult women walking around, there's that sense of, I've got to be kind and I've got to be appropriate and aware and care for all these people and do all these things. So I can't let all these emotions come out.

Not only that, but I don't even have time to sit and process my emotions or talk to somebody because I've got to prioritize my kids, or I've got to prioritize the people in my life. So I think for a lot of women, there's just not the opportunity, it feels like, to take care of yourself and to do the things you need to do to work through your own anxiety.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, that makes sense. And earlier, you said something sort of in passing, and I kind of let it go. It got my attention when you said they approached you about writing a book about anxiety in kids, and you insisted on also having the opportunity to write one about parents. And you said that in an adamant way, like that was really near to your heart. What's the connection there?

Sissy Goff: Well, I want any parent who's listening to hear me say this with a lot of grace. But I believe the reason I said that then and what I still believe is we're really in an age of rescuing kids. In light of anxiety, the two most common parenting strategies are escape and avoidance. So I'm seeing more parents than I ever have, when their kids come upon something hard, stepping in and pulling them out of that thing.

In all the research, the definition I came up with of anxiety is anxiety is an overestimation of the problem and an underestimation of ourselves. So with kids, if kids come upon this hard thing and we step in and we rescue them, we're basically confirming that definition. "You're right. It's too big. You need me. You can't handle this on your own." Never intentionally. That is not the message we're trying to communicate, but that's what they receive when we do that.

So, I really wanted to, in that one, push in on parents to say, help your kids do the hard things. And then I felt it that much more strongly, which is why I wrote the new book to say, not only do you have to let your kids do hard things, but you've got to do your own work. And I believe that's the best thing we can do for kids.

Eric Huffman: I think we want to do our kids' work because our work is harder.

Sissy Goff: That's a great statement.

Eric Huffman: I really think that. I think I want to solve my kids' problems because they're solvable and I can be a hero for a minute and I don't have to deal with my messes that are less solvable.

Sissy Goff: Makes so much sense.

Eric Huffman: I love your little semi-definition of anxiety, which is that it's an overestimation of the problem and an underestimation of yourself. And that's what happens when anxiety does overcome us. That's been my experience is that it is absolutely an overestimation of the problem. But my kids' problems are a lot smaller than mine. And who doesn't want to rescue their kids? Like, of course, that seems like a good thing.

Sissy Goff: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

Eric Huffman: And you seem to be suggesting that it's maybe the worst thing you can do for your kids is to get them out of their problems, you know, without them facing them. Is that right?

Sissy Goff: Yes. I would say that. Yes. It's a hard thing to say, but I think that's very true.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, that's tough. I have two kids and I do that for one of them, but not the other. I'm a sexist maybe, but I want to rescue my daughter and let my son fend for himself. That's my-

Sissy Goff: Well, I'm so glad for you to say that because I think that's true of most parents. I mean, I do think there's some dads are harder on sons and moms are harder on daughters. But I think some of that is because they feel like an extension of me and I don't want them to make the same mistakes I made. And I think they push our buttons more because they're often like us, too. I'm so grateful for you to say that out loud, because I think a lot of parents can relate.

Eric Huffman: Thank you. I feel like this is turning into my counseling session. The thing I've heard you say again and again that has really stood out to me is the idea of anxiety being something that is taught and caught and sort of we pass it on to our kids. Again, this is another reason why it's important for us to deal with our stuff as parents. But how exactly is anxiety contagious in that way?

Sissy Goff: Well, it's fascinating because... I mean, like we're talking about, that's one way. When I'm rescuing them, then they feel like they're not capable. And I believe a lack of capability creates a lack of confidence, which creates more anxiety. But also, there's something that happens even in what are called our mirror neurons in our brain, which is a part of our growing network of connections in our brain.

And mirror neurons are so much of how we learn to do things. You can tell me to tie my shoes all day long, but until I watch you tie yours, I'm not going to know how. Same with water skiing. I can hear somebody say, bend your knees, keep your arms straight, all of that, but until I watch someone, I'm not going to learn it.

To think about a child and a snake, kids don't have to be told to be afraid of a snake or a spider so much of the time. Maybe boys do a little bit. Most kids don't, but especially if they see us interact with one and they immediately learn this is something to be afraid of. The same is true for a lot of different aspects of our life. So that's part of how it's taught and caught.

And another is part of what happens when we get anxious is the blood flow in our brain shifts. It leaves the prefrontal cortex, which helps us think rationally and manage our emotions, and it goes to the amygdala that is the fight-or-flight region of our brain. So I believe there's something that happens when one person's amygdala gets tripped that another's does as well. Which is why parents will say to me, my child's like a crazy person when they get to this place, and then I jump right in with them because all of our amygdalas get flipped.

Anybody who's listening that's ever had that experience knows nobody comes to a healthy, productive conversation when your amygdala's taken over. I mean, the rational part of your brain's not even getting blood. So until we can calm down, we're not gonna get to a better place.

Eric Huffman: So when you're around anxious people, you get more anxious? Is that basically...?

Sissy Goff: I believe absolutely you do. Yes. Haven't you felt that before when you're sitting with somebody really anxious and you start to feel that way?

Eric Huffman: Absolutely.

Sissy Goff: Yes. Me too.

Eric Huffman: Yes. I don't want to start naming names, but yes, I definitely feel that way. I know I can have that effect on people too. Maybe I wouldn't use the word anxiety, but it probably is. I just call it stressed. If I'm under a lot of stress, I stress people out. And I don't always deal with stress well. So that makes sense to me.

What are the signs of a parent who is communicating anxiety, who is anxious, who is bringing the anxiety home and imparting it on our children? I mean, we can't really say, well, I feel the blood flow shifting from one part of my brain to the other. What are the real-life symptoms of that?

Sissy Goff: I'm doing a parenting seminar a lot on this now, and I ask parents three questions. So, we could ask these three questions. One is, is your thought circular or linear? So, with non-anxious thoughts, maybe we have a worst-case scenario thought, something like that, that comes in our brain. If we're not anxious, that thought comes in and it goes right back out. Are my kids okay right now? Did I fail that? It comes in and it goes out.

If we're anxious, the thought comes in and it gets stuck in this loop. With little kids in my office, I'll call it the one-loop roller coaster at the fair. And so, is the thought circular or is it linear and moving you towards action in a healthy, productive way? So, that would be one question.

The second would be, is your emotion as a result of that thought bigger than the situation warrants? That's often going to be a tipping-off place where we're going to have a lot of emotion around anxious thoughts.

Number three, does your thought cause you to be more possessive, where you're holding tighter, trying to rescue the things that we were talking about earlier, or does it help you let your kids go and move forward and stretch their legs and muscles and take risks in healthy, age-appropriate ways? So those are my three big questions with parents to kind of help them look through their thoughts.

Eric Huffman: It's hard, because if you are in an anxious state, then you're going to feel like you're having an appropriate level of emotions. Like, you know, the anxiety can be deceptive.

Sissy Goff: That's a great point. Yes. My nephew does occupational therapy, which is, I think, a beautiful practice for young kids. I was talking to his occupational therapist just last week, and she said one of their favorite questions with young kids is, is it a little deal, a medium deal, or a big deal? And when we're anxious, always a medium deal is going to feel like a big deal and a little deal is going to feel like a medium.

But I think when we can back up and have things like that, even that we go back to in our minds, "Okay, is this really a little deal or a medium deal or a big deal?" I think we can get to more perspective in those moments.

Eric Huffman: What about though when someone's anxious and they're making a big deal out of a medium deal? It seems like telling them that is the least productive thing you could possibly tell them. Totally hypothetical, this is not me and my wife. But as a husband that comes home from work to an anxious wife, the last thing you want to tell her is you're just being anxious. How do you actually get at the issue without seeming condescending or being dismissive?

Sissy Goff: That's a great question. I think anytime somebody feels like we're in it with them, that we're coming alongside them, that we see them, I think we have a lot more credibility to say hard things. So even to say, "Honey, I know you are trying so hard. I love how thoughtful you are with our kids. Or I love the intentionality that you have and the energy you put into this. And I'm wondering if there might be, at this point, a little anxiety underneath it, or if it may feel like it's gotten bigger, and maybe are you looping? You tell me."

But I think when we can start it with a lot of empathy, a lot of reminding them. Because I believe those things are true. And I know in my life, if people will tell me they know I'm trying hard and that they see that whatever I'm feeling is important, then they have a lot more latitude to say anything with me. But I want to hear those things first.

Eric Huffman: And that you actually value who they are and what they bring to the table. I think as a typically non-anxious person myself, I think that's not always right either. Sometimes, you know, events in life warrant some anxiety. And if I'm distant from that, you know, we need to work as a team.

Sissy Goff: I love what you're saying because one of the other things... I mean, I did so much research to write these four books. I could spit it out all day. But one of the other things that I read that I thought was fascinating was in a two-parent household, there's often an anxious parent and a non-anxious parent.

Eric Huffman: Oh.

Sissy Goff: And the non-anxious parent is usually dismissed. Not to call anyone out.

Eric Huffman: Like from the house?

Sissy Goff: From the conversation, you're not paying enough attention. You don't understand what's going on. You don't know how hard kindergarten is. You don't know how hard the SAT is. You're not in all these conversations I'm in. But what the research went on to say is how important the non-anxious parent is.

And I'm going to go ahead and pick on my gender because I think, ladies, obviously we're leading the statistics on anxiety. And I think there is something about us that when we get anxious, we get so intense. Eric, my guess is you, and I think a lot of men I know, some women I know do a beautiful job at this, but I think when you're not as anxious, you can have a great sense of humor, number one. And I think number two, you can challenge kids in a way where they can move forward and take risks in a way that we have a harder time. And so I do feel like that non-anxious voice is so important. And like you said, the teamwork is crucial.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. And I think you're raising a bigger point that probably is part of the reason why I'm a little suspicious of the whole mental health conversation happening in our culture right now is because I think the push is to respect people who are anxious and to really kind of champion anxiety almost as a good thing.

Sissy Goff: Not push them forward.

Eric Huffman: Yeah. And then to not respect people that aren't anxious.

Sissy Goff: That's interesting.

Eric Huffman: I think in the past it would have been the opposite probably where anxious people are sort of dismissed and now I think we are to a point now where the non-anxious ones are more likely to be dismissed or discarded.

Sissy Goff: That's so interesting.

Eric Huffman: Is that anything you've noticed in your practice?

Sissy Goff: No. What I have noticed is what you're saying about us... mental health, I'm so grateful it's such an important part of the conversation now. And I do think we are overdiagnozing. And I think diagnosis can sometimes become a cop-out. Like, "Don't require anything of me. I shouldn't have to do hard things."

Everything I'm saying in any mental health person would say is to work through anxiety, you have to do hard things. Well, I had a group of seniors in high school. I just thought, I thought it'd be interesting to ask them this question. I said, how do you think kids are defining themselves today? And this one girl said, "I think we're defining ourselves by mental health issues."

Eric Huffman: Really?

Sissy Goff: Yes. She's brilliant. She said, "Part of the problem is, number one, it makes us focus more on the negative than the positive. And number two, it takes away the power of the words for the people who are really experiencing them."

Eric Huffman: Wow. 

Sissy Goff: And I definitely see that in my practice with adolescents. I feel like kids are diagnosing themselves constantly. And I think there's this sense of, if I don't have a diagnosis, what I'm feeling isn't valid, which makes me really sad. Because feeling stressed is a really big thing and feeling sad. But they don't say "I'm sad", they say "I'm depressed".

And I think it's part of why people are using that kind of language, again, it's just become a cultural norm. I think we need to listen because we don't know and we need to obviously take it seriously, but I feel concerned sometimes that we're taking away the power of the words too.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, it's powerful and it's something we should all be thinking about. I think it does connect with what you're saying about parenting, which is anxiety being caught and taught. And parents, our tendency is to swoop in and save the day. And one way we can sort of do that is by pursuing a diagnosis or more than one and medicating or you know, trying to treat our kids in that way. That really it can be good. I don't want to say that it's not. It totally can be useful but it can also be a way of just putting a band-aid on something that gets us out of dealing with the harder things, both ourselves and our kids.

One thing you said, I think you were quoting a patient of yours or a client of yours that said this, but you said that a parent's job in a situation of high anxiety is to be the calmest person in the room. What did you mean by that?

Sissy Goff: Well, I was quoting a dad who said that in my office. He had just been to a conference. He's a CEO of his company, and he said, "The speaker said a CEO's job is to be the calmest person in the room." And he said, "I couldn't help but immediately think about my family and think that must be a parent's job, too."

I would say high anxiety, high anger, anything, a parent's job is to be the calmest person in the room. Now, that doesn't mean we don't say, "I'm feeling frustrated right now, and I'm going to need a few minutes," or "I'm feeling angry," or "I'm feeling worried right now, and I'm going to have to go do some things to bring myself back down from 10," if we're thinking about a 1 to 10 scale. But when we're reacting with the same emotion as they are, again, if we think about the amygdala, we're only making things worse for them. It is not helpful. And they're not learning healthy coping strategies on their own.

Eric Huffman: Sure. I think that statement is obviously just a... it's an oversimplification, but it's a beautiful sort of way to get your head around it. Especially for a parent that tends to be anxious, I think that parent's job is to be the calmest person in the room or to be appropriately calm, let's say. But there's obviously other parents, like myself, who need to be appropriately assertive probably. Like we can all sort of shrink back into our comfort zones, right? Like we have to help each other and get out of those comfort zones and meet in the middle sometimes, right?

Sissy Goff: Yes, know where we need to grow. Absolutely.

Eric Huffman: So you talk about over the years seeing different types of parents emerge. And there are several types that you point out in your book, by the way. If anybody's watching and wants to pick up the book, this is the book here, The Worry-Free Parent. What are some of those? I found it pretty humorous, actually, the types that you point out. And what are the characteristics of those types?

Sissy Goff: I would say most parents I see fall into one of these five categories, one is helicopter parenting, which we have seen. All of us know exactly what that is, stepping in, controlling things. Another is bulldozer parenting. Do I call it bulldozer or snowplow?

Eric Huffman: Snowplow.

Sissy Goff: Snowplough parenting. Yeah, snowplow parenting, where I'm going to clear out all the moguls ahead of them so they have nothing scary in their path, nothing hard in their path. I want it to be as easy as it can for them. Or back co-parenting where I'm gonna go behind them and clean up all their mistakes.

I know a family who tried to sue a school over their daughter not getting the office that she wanted in the student government. You know, just really concerning. That's a very exaggerated picture of it. But I think it's easy to do. I don't want them to not do well on their school project, and I don't think they're as good at papier-mâché as I am, so I'm going to come in and I'm going to help a little in the places that they missed. Now, not to say we can't support kids when they need it, but at the same time, if it becomes a pattern, that's when it becomes concerning.

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Sissy Goff: So, snowplow, helicopter, [batco?], sidecar, which I go back to the old Adam West Batman show of Robin stuck in the sidecar and slinging around the corners with Batman having zero control. I'll never forget a mom who came in and she said, "My daughter's really struggling with friends." And she said, "She's so anxious. She just gets locked up and doesn't know what to do and hangs back and feels really insecure." And I met this girl and she was not insecure at all. In fact, she had some things going on that I think made her very unaware and very overconfident.

Eric Huffman: Oh.

Sissy Goff: But because that had been the mom's experience, that's what she assumed was going on with her daughter. So she was along for the ride.

Eric Huffman: Okay. So the kid is in the sidecar. Because I've known parents whose kids drove them around.

Sissy Goff: Oh, you're right.

Eric Huffman: That's where my mind went.

Sissy Goff: That should be one, too. Yes, that's a good one, too. Definitely.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, though.

Sissy Goff: And then parade float parenting would be the last one, which is basically the parent who doesn't want anything to be hard, sad, scary, any emotion, again, that we might have considered negative. And so they're trying to stay on the parade and keep everything fun.

I joke that my mom was kind of a parade float parent. When I was growing up and we lost a dog, she would go get the same kind of dog the same day and name it the same thing. Like, I didn't notice that my dog shrunk from an adult dog to a puppy. I always did.

Eric Huffman: My parents did the same thing. That's crazy.

Sissy Goff: No, they did not, Eric. That's so funny. Same name?

Eric Huffman: My dog got hit by an ice cream truck and lost its back legs. And then the next day I had a four-legged dog again. It was crazy.

Sissy Goff: No.

Eric Huffman: Same name, everything.

Sissy Goff: No. That's hilarious. So your parents might've been a little parade floaty too.

Eric Huffman: Maybe. Maybe. Explains a lot.

Sissy Goff: That's so funny. Yes, that is so funny.

Eric Huffman: That's great. So these are all sort of-

Sissy Goff: Which all of them-

Eric Huffman: These are great images, right? It's all sort of like diagnosing different problems. But I guess, what's the true north that we're aiming for? If it's not these things, what should we be?

Sissy Goff: Well, the true north... that's a good question. You know what I think about are the little cars that are like at Disney World those race cars and not letting them drive in terms of them having the most power in the relationship and being in control of your house but they've got to work their way towards doing the scary thing. I think about, you know, that racetrack that has the bumper guide rails that are three times as wide as the car. And so you're still going down the path, but you're bumping along the way as you're doing it, where you're learning to drive better yourself and you're learning to keep a straighter course.

Eric Huffman: I went to a bowling alley the other day and I saw the tricks they have now to make sure kids don't fail at bowling is pretty amazing. No one can throw it in the gutter anymore. You know, you could have teenage kids using their little ramp for the ball and the bumper rails. And it's like, that's an image in itself. And sometimes we have to let kids gutter ball it a few times. I mean, I think that's the image.

Sissy Goff: That's so true. Right.

Eric Huffman: We had another guy on the podcast, Jeremy Pryor, who talks about, sort of from a Christian vantage point, the image of family shouldn't be that of a nest where we are trying to launch kids off into the world and to be independent of the family. But it should be a multi-generational team that's on a mission.

In team building, you're trying to raise leaders for the next generation, right? That's what we're trying to do. That's the image of it. Every good leadership trainer will tell you that you need a mentor-mentee relationship where you do the training, you teach and they watch, and then you talk about it. And then eventually you get to where they lead and you watch and you talk about it. And eventually they're able to lead on on their own. I think that's sort of a good image of what we're trying to do as parents.

Sissy Goff: Well, I love that analogy. That's great.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, it was so solid. I think a lot of parents might be listening right now and just thinking, wow, this sounds great, but our ship has sailed maybe, or we're too deep in these problems that, and I've screwed up. So I'm just going to be more anxious now about the mistakes I've made. What would you say to parents about like where to begin to turn things around for the better?

Sissy Goff: I really wrote all of the anxiety books as an attempt to say, Hey, here's your first shot. Here's where to start. And they're based on the most widely researched therapy practice, which is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Anxiety. So there's a lot of tricks and tips in those books. So my hope is always that immediately somebody could read that and have some practical tools they can start using.

And I think what I would want to remind anyone... I mean, two things. One is, the longer anxiety goes untreated, the worse it gets because we're creating these neural pathways in our brain. But at the same time, we're always creating neural pathways. And there's this beautiful thing about how God made us called neuroplasticity that is true no matter how old we are.

So it really is never too late to go back and learn new strategies and to create new neural pathways in our brain. So, we can change this ship quickly. And the things, cognitive behavioral therapy, I mean, I think you would read the book and think, well, that's simple. You know, it's things like breathing and things like practices to get our focus shifted off of the worry and pulling the worry out of our own heads and giving it a name. I mean, things that are really practical. Because it isn't hard. I mean, it is brain science, but it's not in some ways in that it's not so complicated. So I think it's easy, accessible work, but we've got to do the work to make the difference.

Eric Huffman: It's so refreshing to hear you talk here and elsewhere about God and your work in therapy and God and neuroscience, because it's pretty rare that you see those lines connecting. We want to, in culture these days, sometimes keep theology and psychology separate for whatever reason. Where do you see God in this conversation about anxiety and parenting?

Sissy Goff: Well, I'd have to quote my good friend and boss, Melissa Trevathan, who started Daystar. We were with a group of seventh and eighth graders, and she said, which I'll never forget, she said, courage isn't the antidote to anxiety, but trust is. And I love that statement so much because courage feels dependent on us. It feels dependent on me rising up and doing the hard thing all in my own power.

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Sissy Goff: And when we have faith in a God that we know loves us and is for us and redemptive, then I can trust that He really does have my good in mind. And so I may have to do hard things, and it may not turn out the way I want it to be, but I also believe He loves me and is for me. And so my trust can change my perspective of what it feels like to walk into doing hard things, because I believe ultimately I'm going to be okay. And maybe even better than okay, God's going to use these things for good in my life and the lives of the kids I love too. It's not just me.

I have this whole section in the new book about how trust transforms us, and I believe it's true. There's all these beautiful things that come as a byproduct of that.

Eric Huffman: Cover to cover it's biblical to trust God, to trust His promises for us, to trust that His will for us is for our good, that He has good plans for us. You know, if you're raised anywhere around a church, you probably get that message loud and clear. And I think that's absolutely paramount.

The other side of the conversation, though, is the work of sort of God's counterpart in the Bible, the devil, Satan, and the darkness, and all of that. Do you see any relationship between these spiritual sort of dark forces at work in the world and the anxiety that's running rampant in our lives?

Sissy Goff: Well, I definitely would say so. I mean, we know we are told to take every thought captive. And I think those anxious thoughts... I was doing a podcast with my friend Annie Downs. I don't know if you're familiar with Annie Downs.

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Sissy Goff: I was talking about the anxious voice and how we all have this voice in the back of our heads saying worst case scenario, saying we really failed. And she said, "Oh, you mean Satan's voice?"

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Sissy Goff: I would never have jumped to that that quickly, but I agree. I said, "Yeah, that's exactly, Annie." I think it's nice to be able to step back and say, we know that he puts thoughts and ideas in our heads. And of course, a thought that is defeating.

There's this section I have in the book about God's voice versus worry's voice. And as I'm saying worry's voice, I mean Satan's voice because he limits us, he lies to us, all of the things that worry does, and it's fascinating. Even if I'm gonna jump back to neuroscience, one of the things that happens is the more often I become anxious, the more likely I am to become anxious because my amygdala enlarges and it develops this hyper-responsiveness, and so anxiety starts to lie to me and make me believe it's true, which, is completely what we would say Satan does.

Eric Huffman: Right. He's the father of lies.

Sissy Goff: Exactly. Yes. Yes. So I love that you brought those two things together because I think it is very true.

Eric Huffman: It's delicate, I'll be honest, because you probably are like me and you got a family in your office. Like the last thing you want to say when they're expressing their deepest concerns is, what your child is hearing the devil's voice. Probably a little unsettling. "Well, it's Satan talking to your children."

And yes, we want to be delicate, but we also want to be truthful. This is just what he does. He lies to us. He lies to us about who we are. He lies to us about who God is and about what's important. And to trust God is to also reject the lies that we're being told. I think that's an important reminder for anybody that's listening.

Sissy Goff: Oh, I was about to say, thank you for that reminder. Yes, you're exactly right.

Eric Huffman: I just think sometimes we just want to keep it positive and light. You know, there's more to the story. I know we're almost out of time. I just wondered if you could help me, first of all, and our listeners with any tools to start with. Like what tools can we pull out of our tool chest at home to deal with these issues, especially about around anxiety and parenting?

Sissy Goff: One of my favorite practical things... I mean, there is a lot that psychology teaches us about the word mindfulness, which I think in Christendom, it can feel like that's like the hokey pokey, turn yourself around. You know, it just sounds so weird.

But I came across and ended up using in the book, what are called breath prayers. And what we know, as we were talking about, when the amygdala takes over, we're more anxious. And when we can do deep breathing in those moments, the blood vessels in our brain dilate, and it shifts the blood flow away from the amygdala and back to the prefrontal cortex.

So literally, the act of slow, deep breathing gets us back into our thinking brain. I love the idea of taking a verse, be still and know that I am God, and we slowly breathe in and think about "be still" and then we slowly breathe out "for you are God". Or we breathe in "I can do all things", we breathe out "through Christ who strengthens me".

In those moments, I am doing the scientific research-based work of slowing down my body where that I'm going to be less anxious, but I'm also anchoring myself to God's word, which we know has profound effect on who we are emotionally and spiritually and all those things.

Eric Huffman: Sure. Wow.

Sissy Goff: So that's one of my favorites.

Eric Huffman: What about how we talk to each other at home, I mean, and how we as a family unit deal with anxiety when it rears its head? Are there practical things we can do as a team that we can agree on? Like, we're going to do this together, or we're going to say this when whatever. Are there any tips you might offer families?

Sissy Goff: I have a friend who said, I wish when I was growing up my mom had said  "you've got this" more than "let me get this for you". And I would guess her mom was maybe anxious so she was saying a lot of "let me get this for you".

I love mantras, I love just... which it's just a silly word for sayings that we can go back to over and over. So if the saying in our house is "you can do hard things", or "I believe in you," or "we can all do all things through Christ who strengthens us". I have a five-year-old nephew, and we went to Disney World last year, and I had never taken a five-year-old to Disney, but there's a lot that's scary.

So I got down on his level and I said, "Henry, a little bit scared, a whole lot of fun. A little bit scared, a whole lot of fun. And we said it all over Disney World. And it's funny, he was going to school in August after all that. And I said, Henry, a little bit scared, a whole lot of fun. And he calls me Diddy. And he said, "Diddy, school is not that fun." But that has been a mantra.

I mean, I have a new puppy, as you mentioned, and we were going to get the puppy, and I got so nervous yesterday. And my sister with my nephew in the car said, "Diddy, a little bit scared, a whole lot of fun." And I said, "You're exactly right."

Eric Huffman: It's the power of words.

Sissy Goff: I know.

Eric Huffman: The words we choose can really mean a lot. Yes.

Sissy Goff: Yes. So having things like that that we can say, I think, makes a huge difference for all of us.

Eric Huffman: Right. I don't guess there's any chance we can see the puppy, is there? Is he still there with you

Sissy Goff: Well, you know, the funny thing is I'm trying to occupy her as we're talking. Can you see her?

Eric Huffman: Oh, yeah, just barely-

Sissy Goff: He's here. I'll turn her around. Her name's Patches.

Eric Huffman: Patches.

Sissy Goff: Can you say hi, Patches?

Eric Huffman: Adorable. Whoops, she's caught in my cord. Isn't she cute?

Eric Huffman: She is.

Sissy Goff: Hi, Patches.

Eric Huffman: And she's so good.

Sissy Goff: Well, mostly. She's been sleeping, so she'll be bad soon.

Eric Huffman: Oh, she's adorable.

Sissy Goff: She's got big shoes to fill in terms of helping kids.

Eric Huffman: Oh, yeah, and she will do a great job.

Sissy Goff: Hopefully she'll do great.

Eric Huffman: Thank you for introducing us to Patches.

Sissy Goff: Oh, yes, you're welcome.

Eric Huffman: Well, one last question is just for parents that might really be feeling it right now and wondering if there's hope for their family. Like, where does the hope lie for a family that has sort of been through the war of deceit and lies that anxiety brings? Where does the hope lie, you think?

Sissy Goff: Oh, I think there is so much hope. I think our hope is found in Christ. And not to oversimplify, because again, there are times we need therapy. There are times our anxiety is significant enough that we need medication. But there are people out there who love God and who are well-equipped to help in those places.

But I think just to know that you're not alone, to know that I really do believe that God can redeem all things. And as a therapist for 30 years, some of the kids and families that I've seen struggle with anxiety and struggle with different issues are some of the most amazing, strong people who their faith has transformed them in the midst of that and transformed their worries.

Eric Huffman: Amen. Thank you so much. And everybody that's listening or watching, I hope they heard that, that there is hope no matter what. There's always hope. Sissy Goff, you are a blessing, my friend.

Sissy Goff: Thank you. You too. I'm so glad to be with you.

Eric Huffman: I'm grateful. I know you were just in Houston, but we would love to bring you back out for a family weekend here at our church.

Sissy Goff: I would love it.

Eric Huffman: We'll be in touch about that.

Sissy Goff: I love Houston. I'd come anytime for the Mexican food and to get to be with y'all would just be an added bonus.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, I see you have your priorities in order, so that's good. Once again, this is Sissy Goff's latest book, The Worry-Free Parent. I hope you all will pick it up wherever books are sold. Sissy Goff, thank you so much. I pray you'll just keep going and persevere and share the hope of Christ with the whole world.

Sissy Goff: Thank you, Eric. You too.

Eric Huffman: Thanks for being with us.

[00:49:15] <music>

Julie Mirlicourtois: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our associate producer and social media lead is Adira Polite, and our editor is Justin Mayer. The director of this full-length YouTube video was Mark Calver. Please rate and review Maybe God wherever you listen to podcasts, and thanks for tuning in.