Created By: FantiSci on September 21, 2013 Last Edited By: Arivne on October 24, 2013

Helpless Bystander Parent

A parent who fails to defend their children, usually against an abusive partner

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This parent enables abuse and/or bullying by doing nothing.

They never hurt their children. They may clearly love their children. They probably know that they should protect their children. Yet they don't. Instead, they watch from the sidelines, chewing their lip and wringing their hands as their offspring are neglected, insulted or abused.

The reason for their inaction varies. Many are scared of their partners. In some cases, they have had their spirits broken — they tried to stand up for themselves or their children in the past, and the fallout was so terrifying that they gave up. Some feel that they owe loyalty to their partner first, no matter how horrible they are. Others suffer from such crippling self esteem issues (usually made worse by the abusive party) that they fail to trust their own judgement, and assume that the abusive party must be right — they are the weak ones that don't know how to discipline their children. Some are caught in a hopelessly tangled situation, afraid to take action in case they're wrong. Others are simply weak-willed or cowardly by nature, and becoming a parent hasn't changed that fact.

This character is rarely completely unsympathetic, especially if we know that they have tried to do something. However, much depends on their circumstances: the spouse of a Knight Templar who crusades for one child at the expense of the others is generally sympathetic, especially if they try to "make up" for the neglect. However, a parent who brings a new paramour into the house and stands by when he insults or attacks the kids might be judged even more harshly that the abuser — not only have they failed to defend their children, they brought the threat into the house in the first place.

While the attacker is normally a partner or spouse, it can be a Sadist Teacher or even a child bully that this parent cannot stand up to.

In order to qualify as a HBP, the parent must know that something is wrong. If they are completely unaware that their children are in trouble, they don't qualify. However, if they are clearly ''pretending'' that nothing is wrong, and too quick to make excuses and handwave any possible unpleasantness, then they count.

Usually, if the abuse is physical, the HBP will be female and the abuser male. If the abuse is emotional, the reverse is usually true. A step-parent can be an HBP, and will generally be sympathetic, as their desire to help the kids will conflict with not wanting to overstep the mark.

The opposite of a Mama Bear or Papa Wolf. Particularly depressing subtrope of Adults Are Useless.



Anime and Manga

  • Momiji's dad in Fruits Basket. Ultimately, he chooses his wife over his son, asking Hatori to wipe his wife's memory of Momiji to prevent her from confronting the oh-so-horrible fact that, through no fault of his own, Momiji turns into a cute bunny when hugged. He promises Momiji that he'll love him twice as much to make up for his mother rejecting him. Yet all we see him do is constantly run interference to make sure Momiji sees as little of his mother and sister as possible. Momiji is even expected to apologise if he runs into them accidentally. When Momiji's sister, Momo, decides she wants to learn the violin, Momiji's dad stops Momiji's lessons in favour of his daughter getting the best violin tuition, without the risk of her encountering her brother. As with nearly all parents in this series no-one ever calls him out on this.
  • In a particularly dark chapter of Pet Shop of Horrors, a mother fears that she is this, even though she has already fled from her violent partner, She has nightmares in which she not only fails to protect her young son, she actually shoves him in front of her after her ex-partner tries to stab her. Ultimately, she's far from spineless - she dies shielding her son from her ex-partner's attack.

  • In Stone Cold by Robert Swindells, the main character's mother allows her new boyfriend, Vince, to chase both of her children out of the house. Her older daughter moves in with her boyfriend after an implied proposition/assault by Vince. Her son, known only as "Link", fares even worse - Vince subjects him to constant insults (apparently trying to get the sixteen-year-old to leave), then locks him out of the house one night only to physically attack him upon his return, claiming to be enraged that "Link" "worried his mother" by staying out all night. His mother clearly knows that Vince is abusive...but never once defends her children. This eventually leads to "Link" deciding to take his chances living on the street rather than live with Vince.
  • In Jackie French's Summerland (not to be confused with several works of the same name), Bridget's mother is the in-denial variant of the spineless parent. She knows her husband is dangerous, and at least makes an attempt to get her daughter out of the way before he arrives home, but is ultimately always making excuses for him: if only she were a better wife, if only Bridget would be good and not make him so angry.... Eventually, Bridget stands up for herself and leaves home to seek the safety of her grandparents' house. Her mum supports this decision, yet her main concern is that Bridget doesn't let them know what's going on.
  • In My Sister's Keeper, Brian never seems entirely comfortable with using Anna as a Walking Transplant. Yet he does nothing for 13 years, during which Anna undergoes many painful, invasive surgeries. He seems to be making a stand when she herself sues for medical emancipation though...only to break down on the stand and admit that really, he wants Anna to do what her mother, Sara, wants her to do (presumably because he's terrified that Anna's sister, Kate, will die otherwise).

  • Betty Sri'Vastra of Friendly Hostilty appears to be the source of Collin's woes, but later comics indicate that she's actually trying to keep her upwardly-mobile, conservative husband happy by keeping Collin in line...and perhaps, acts as a buffer between the harsher personality of Jerry Sri'Vastra and their son. She recognises Collin's discontent, and when she discovers that Collin is gay, she doesn't tell her husband for fear that he won't let her see her son again. She won't stand up to her husband, but she still doesn't want to lose her son.

Community Feedback Replies: 11
  • September 21, 2013
  • September 22, 2013
    Hm, does this cover the cases where a parent repeatedly fails to prevent bad things happen to his/her children? Like this:

    • Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain loses track of his son Jason in a crowded mall and doesn't catch up with him in time to prevent him form being hit by a car and killed. A few years later, he has a seizure while waiting for his other son Shaun at a playground, during which Shaun is kidnapped by the Origami Killer.
  • September 22, 2013
    As long as he actively tried to catch up with Jason, I don't think he qualifies — he didn't think "my kid's in trouble but I can't/won't do anything," it's just bad luck that he wasn't fast enough. The Shaun incident sounds like bad luck on an epic scale. The outcome is still traumatic, but it wasn't because Dad was choosing to be completely useless.
  • September 27, 2013
    I've triple-checked The Parent Trope and haven't seen anything that ticked this box...Am I missing something?
  • October 14, 2013
    This doesn't have any hats, but it hasn't raised any objection either. Clear to launch?

    Oh, and should it be "Helpless Bystander Parent" or just Bystander Parent (since "helpless" implies that they couldn't help, even if they wanted to)?
  • October 14, 2013
    Isn't this just a more specific version of Abusive Parents? Its certainly abuse by neglect. There is also Parental Neglect.
  • October 14, 2013
    • In Quincy episode "A Good Smack in the Mouth", a mother fails to protect her son from an abusive boyfriend. Even the boy's teacher and doctor believe the excuses for all the injuries.
  • October 14, 2013
    Parental Neglect depicts parents who don't really care about the day to day care of their kids (feeding them, taking care of them and so on). A bystander parent usually does look after their kids in most respects — but they fail to protect them, usually from one specific, close-to-home threat.
  • October 14, 2013
  • October 23, 2013
    Last call for examples / objections?
  • October 24, 2013
    • Dead Poets Society: Neil's mother is revealed to be this in her small appearances in the film; while she clearly loves her son she does not stand up to her husband (a particularly mean Fantasy Forbidding Father) forcing his life aspirations onto Neil even when she realizes how depressed it makes him.