Throwing Stones
By Don Staheli

Parents and their rebellious children often go through a tragic repetition of hostile confrontations, destructive yelling matches, and, occasionally, actual physical battles. These are accompanied on both sides by demoralizing feelings of rejection and failure. The more such devastating scenes are played out, the worse things seem to become and the greater grows the distance between the frustrated parents and the struggling child.

I recall a circumstance plaguing a good family. They were doing their best to be close and to foster helpful communication, but everything that had worked with the other children was failing miserably for one teenage daughter.

She flouted family values, openly challenged parental authority, frequently lied, and disobeyed even the most reasonable expectations of her parents. She stole money and other things of value to Mom and Dad, even things she couldn’t use. She didn’t seem to be self-destructive or into drugs or that kind of thing, but a virtual war was being waged in that home between a teenager in crisis and her confused and grieving parents. Ultimately, they decided to seek some guidance on what they might do to deal more effectively with the situation. Nothing else was working, so they gave me a call as a therapist.

After speaking with Mom and Dad, I was very pleased that the young woman was willing to visit with me as well. Willingness to talk to someone who wants to help is a real sign of maturity and a sincere desire to make things better.

This confused young teen, I’ll call her Sarah, was not immediately ready to openly share her feelings. We had to get to know each other, and she needed to feel some trust that I wouldn’t betray her. What she didn’t need was another “parent” to tell her what to do or lecture her about how things ought to be. What she wanted most was a listening ear and a caring heart.

It didn’t take long to realize that Sarah was really a fine person with a great desire to be successful in life. She understood right from wrong and knew that some of her behavior fell well within the latter. She was smart, so why the acting out? What better way to find out than to ask?

“So, Sarah, you’ve had all this trouble with your parents,” I began. “Things haven’t been going well for you lately. I can think of several reasons why this might be happening. Do you mind if I share a few of them with you? Then you could tell me if I’m beginning to understand where you’re coming from.”

“Okay, I guess.”

Now I was on the spot. How might she be feeling? What might be going on with her that I remember happening to me when I was her age? One thing I knew: Even when young people can’t identify their own feelings, they can often at least confirm what feelings they are having. I would go fishing.

“Sarah, it’s common for people your age to feel angry and hateful toward their parents. Are you feeling that way?”

“No, not really. They bug me, but I know they love me,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders.

No bite. Wrong bait.

“I’m glad. So you feel okay about your parents?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you acting out against them so much?”

Oops. Remember, teenagers can confirm what they’re feeling, but most of the time they can neither identify their feelings nor explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. So it doesn’t really help to ask.

“Never mind that question,” I said, back-peddling. “Maybe you’re like a lot of other kids who are having a hard time in school and you feel frustrated and burned out?”

Give her permission to feel whatever she is feeling. Let her know that whatever she’s feeling, there are probably lots of others feeling that way, too. She’s normal.

“No,” she replied. “I like school.”

Wrong bait again. Look into your own teenage memory.

“You know, Sarah, one of the hardest things for most people in your time of life is just dealing with fear. Not the spook house kind of fright, but a general fear of what’s happening to them in life. You’re getting older, and you may be feeling some of the fear and pressure that come with the eventuality of getting into college, leaving home, and being out on your own. There are hard decisions to make, and it all may feel kind of overwhelming. Have you been feeling some of that kind of fear?”

Sarah looked at me with a how-did-you-know gaze and nodded her head. “Yes,” she said quietly, lowering her eyes.

It was easy to sense her fear and pain.

“I bet that’s tough,” I said. And I remembered just how tough it could be.

We talked some more, and she shared her concerns about the future and how she would ever measure up. No sermons were necessary. No buck-up, you-can-do-it lectures. Just a little caring, a little understanding. She knew she’d been heard, and that was the most important thing.

As soon as I could, I met with her parents and offered them a little illustration of what seemed to be happening between them and their daughter:

Imagine a beautiful beach with warm, white sand and a few palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze. The temperature is perfect. The azure water is washing softly onto the shore. The beach is deserted except for one little family. Just mom and dad and their teenage daughter.

The folks are relaxing, even dozing, on a blanket on the sand while their daughter strolls along the beach picking up stones. She is fascinated by the pebbles, which have been rounded and smoothed through years of delicate abrasion. She has found several worth keeping and holds them tightly in her hand.

The girl can’t swim, but she is old enough to know not to go in over her head, so her parents are not worried about her. She has been mute since birth and has never spoken, so she isn’t even making noise to disturb her parents. They are not paying any attention to her as they soak up the sun and enjoy their rest.

As the small waves wash up around her ankles, the young girl takes a few adventurous steps further out into the surf, just to see what it’s like. She is jostled a bit by the waves, but her feet never leave the sand at the bottom and she is in no danger. A little further out. No harm, she can still touch bottom. The water is only up to her chest. A little larger wave lifts her off her feet, but it passes, and she gently settles back down.

After of few minutes of this enjoyable game, a big wave rolls into shore. This one really picks the girl up, moves her several feet, and sets her down directly over a hole in the ocean floor. She isn’t far from shore, but the water is way over her head as she drops below the surface, straining to make contact with something solid.

Panic comes on her quickly as she realizes she is in desperate trouble. She can’t swim, so she is thrashing about. No one is paying attention. She can’t speak. Her fear erupts only in a silent scream. No one can hear her. Down she sinks.

With all her might she pushes off the bottom and surfaces for just a second. She gasps for air and then instinctively takes one of the stones in her hand and throws it with all her might in the direction of her oblivious parents. Driven with force and accuracy far beyond her natural ability, the stone hits her father right in the head. Up from the blanket he comes, angry and in pain.

Blinded by the sun and the sharp pang in his head, he yells some angry warning in the direction he last saw his daughter and lies back down on the blanket. What is the matter with that girl!

Down she goes again into the foaming water. Again, with all her might, using up the last of her strength she kicks off the sand and raises up just high enough to allow her to throw one more stone of horrified chance. Once again, driven with force and accuracy far beyond her natural ability, the stone hits her father right in the head. This time he is up and running, stunned and angry, bound to stop this painful nonsense.

As his eyes adjust to the brightness, he immediately sees his daughter’s dire position. Quickly he wades into the water and pulls her to the safety of the shore. Within moments, Mom and Dad measure her condition and find that their dear daughter is fine. She is frightened and not at all anxious to go back into the water, but she is okay.

The girl in the story above desperately needed her parents’ attention. She was drowning, but she couldn’t call out. All she could do was throw stones to communicate her plight, hoping they would see her need and respond with a rescue.

The parents of the rebellious teenager recognized immediately the circumstance of their daughter. She was drowning in the sea of life, frightened nearly to death of the future and full of panic, flailing about for something solid. She didn’t know how to communicate her plight. She had never been able to really talk to her parents. It seemed that all she could do was through rocks at the only ones she knew would never reject or abandon her.

At first they reacted only to the almost blinding pain caused by her behavior. They were angry and screamed a warning. Finally, they felt more concern for her than for their own discomfort. They were then able to really pay attention and come to her rescue.

Mom and Dad began to truly listen to their daughter. They began to hear her. She no longer felt the need to throw stones. They had lots of work to do, much to learn about each other and to practice as they worked things out, but the fear and anger were replaced with love and hope and appreciation.

Children can’t “throw stones” at their friends. They will rapidly be rejected. They can’t strike out at their teachers. They’ll usually just be disciplined and labeled. They have to communicate their unspoken dread to those who represent unqualified love and acceptance. Stone-throwing behavior is actually kind of a back-handed compliment to Mom and Dad or some other faithful soul; it represents a childlike trust that should really be appreciated.

So, the next time someone you love, especially one of the kids, throws a figurative stone at you, by all means duck, but then deal quickly with the behavior and pay most of your attention to why the person threw it. Fewer stones will be thrown, fewer people will sink in the quagmire of life, and you won’t have so many knots on your head.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.