Easier Said than Done: What’s a Teen to Do When a Loved One Goes Astray?

by author Jill Williamson

What’s a friend or family member to do when a loved one has gone astray? Should we speak up? Let them know what we think of their reckless behavior? Or do we avoid confrontation and simply try and be a good friend, waiting until our loved one is ready to ask for help or confide in us?

Is there an in-between for teens? Is there a perfect answer?

In my book Captives, Omar, the youngest of the Elias brothers, makes a deal with the enemy, hoping to carve out a better future for himself. But his plan backfires when Safe Lands enforcers kill dozens of his village people. Omar is left bearing the title of traitor, hated by many who were once his friends. This wasn’t how things were supposed to happen. The guilt is overwhelming.

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At first he tries to ignore it. He figures there’s nothing he can do to change the past, so he may as well make the most of his new life. But the longer he ignores the guilt, the worse he feels. And his recklessness puts his own life in danger.

Though his brothers are angry with his actions, they still love Omar. Levi, the eldest, thinks yelling—and maybe even a punch in the face—will snap his little brother back to reality. Mason prefers a gentler approach, prodding his brother with words of warning. But Omar won’t listen to either of them. He feels like they don’t understand, anyway. That they only want to change him. Make him behave. Get him to be a good boy. And so his brothers’ advice only makes him angry.

In the real world, every person has the ability to choose to do good or bad things in life. And each day we make choices that determine what kind of person we’re going to be. Fictional characters are no different. They are each on a journey. There’s the plot journey, which is what’s happening in the story. But a character is also on an emotional journey, which is what’s happening in the character’s heart. Fiction works best when characters grow and change.

There is no perfect answer for how to help someone who’s lost because everyone has different values. And people make their own decisions. As much as we love someone, we can try to help but we can’t choose their actions or words. The same is true for my characters. It wouldn’t be realistic for Omar’s brothers to swoop in and solve everything for him. Omar must decide whether or not to walk the path to redemption. His brothers can’t make him clean up his act. He’s got to want that for himself.

Levi and Mason do their best to reach out to their brother, but in the end they have to leave it up to him.  It’s the old “You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” philosophy. Omar is smart enough to find redemption, but he needs to choose it for himself. He needs to decide what kind of person he wants to be. It has to be Omar’s choice, and only Omar is responsible for making it. But knowing that there are people who haven’t given up on him makes it easier to not give up on himself.

Have you had a loved one get caught up in reckless behavior? How did you handle it?

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