Useless Bystander Parent

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, exploited or abused.

The reason for their inaction varies. Many are scared of their partners and, 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 and foremost, no matter how horrible that partner may be or how much they disagree with them. 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 — the abuser must be the "proper" parent and the bystander is the weak one that doesn'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 UBP, 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 to concerned parties and handwave any possible unpleasantness, then they count. If they are in a situation where they are truly, totally helpless — such as being chained up while their vicious ex-partner attacks their children — then they do not count, as long as it is clear to the viewer that they would rescue their child if they could.

Usually, if the abuse is physical, the UBP will be female and the abuser male. If the abuse is emotional, the reverse is usually true. A step-parent can be an UBP, 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.


Examples

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     Anime and Manga  

  • In Death Note, Teru Mikami's mother cares for her son, and when he gets himself beaten up while trying to protect others from bullies, she tells him that he should not try to take on the impossible task of protecting everyone. While the third person omniscient narrator for his flashbacks in the manga supports that she said what she did for his sake, Teru himself narrates in the anime that his mother was not just, and sees her death along with several bullies as proof of a god that punishes evildoers.
  • 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... Even though the main reason Mom wants to learn violin is so she could play Momiji, who she wants to have as a big brother. As with nearly all parents in this series no-one ever calls him out on this.
    • Akito's father, Akira, truly loved his child, but didn't seem to do much about Ren being incredibly distant as a parent. The most we see is him asking why she refuses to hold Akito and doesn't seem to react to her referring to their child simply as "the baby" and implying that everyone fusses over the kid enough that she doesn't need to bother. That's not even going into how she bullied Akira into agreeing to raise Akito as a boy regardless of her sex at birth, threatening to get an abortion if he refused. Presumably no one calls Akira out on this because he's the head of the house and incredibly sickly (and Akito adores him because he was the only parent who gave Akito any love).
    • Kyoko was massively abused and eventually disowned by her father, while her mother did nothing but fret and wonder how her daughter turned out so poorly and what would the neighbors think?
    • Tohru's grandfather is one of the more sympathetic examples from the manga. He really does love his son, but it's implied he had very little hand in Katsuya's upbringing because the two rarely saw eye-to-eye. In present times in the series, he loves Tohru dearly but his poor health means that he has to be cared for by Tohru's aunt and uncle. Realizing he can't do much to protect her from their cruelty and not wanting her to feel trapped, the best he can do is urge her to go somewhere else, if there's a place she'd rather be at.
  • In Naruto Gaiden, an abuse in the form of neglect is presented with Sakura. While she is married to Sasuke and gave birth to Sarada with him, she stayed silent for over 10 years about Sasuke's disappearance within the family (he's out-in-duty watching over Orochimaru's hideout). She didn't tell Sarada anything about him besides the fact that he's a part of their family, and even actually lied by presenting Sasuke's old photo with Taka members, except by overlaying their figures with hers. While this problem is rectified in the end, it doesn't stop the fact that she basically did emotional abuse to her daughter by not giving her evidence. Abuse that started early and went on for over a decade doesn't magically heal by simply finding the answer in Real Life, as the series shows.
    • This is actually Deconstructed. Because of the long, long time that Sarada spent without Sasuke, she ended up becoming closer with Naruto, who's basically her true father in all but name and genetics.
  • Ouran High School Host Club: Narrowly subverted. At first glance, it seems that Tamaki's father, Yuzuru, doesn't try to prevent the endless emotional abuse that his son experiences at the hands of Yuzuru's utterly ruthless mother, and even goes along with her to stop him from meeting with his sickly mother. He actually opposes his mother. Every single bit. And actually wants Tamaki (and himself, naturally) to be able to live with Anne-Sophie so much that he deposes his mother to become the head of the Suoh Empire. Yuzuru's mother's reaction is priceless.
  • 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 The Tarot Cafe, one story has an alchemist trying to woo a heartless princess, with her promising to love him if he can make her laugh. He creates a very humanlike jester "doll" for this purpose, which the princess starts torturing for her own amusement. The alchemist realizes what's happening to the jester and is horrified, but he meets with Pamela uncertain of what to do. He eventually chooses to side with the jester, who feels genuine love for his creator, rather than the princess.

     Fanfiction  

  • Gladstone Gander in the DuckTales fanfic Little Brother. He tries to be competent, but old habits die hard, and since he is the luckiest goose in the world who's not used to exerting effort or thinking too hard, he has this problem.

     Film  

  • In 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.
  • In the Danish film The Celebration, Else Klingenfeldt-Hansen did nothing to prevent her husband's horrific sexual abuse of their twin children, even when, on one occasion, she found him in the act of raping them.

     Literature  

  • 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. He then leaves home, becoming homeless in the streets of Bradford. His mother clearly knows that Vince is abusive...but never once defends her children. This eventually leads to a disastrous Christmas party where Vince viciously berates and mocks Link...while his mother and sister stand by and say nothing. In fact, their Christmas gift to him is a sleeping bag — confirmation that, rather than rescuing him, they're effectively abandoning him and expect him to remain homeless. Link deciding to take his chances living on the street in London rather than living anywhere near 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...or because he clings to the family's status quo).
  • Peeta's father in The Hunger Games. He's portrayed as a kind and loving man but he is never shown to have intervened when his wife hit their youngest son (and presumably the two older ones as well) nor did he offer any protest when she told Peeta to his face that he had no chance of surviving the Games. The second book of the series implies that she even whipped her children and their father didn't do anything to prevent it.
  • In the The House of Night series, Zoey's mother is treated as this by both Zoey and her grandmother, who blame her for marrying an abusive man and neglecting her children. Considering the mom was apparently a good parent until her second marriage and her new husband is incredibly controlling of her (and the implication that she's financially dependent on him), this has a few Unfortunate Implications.
  • In the Divergent series, Four's mom, Evelyn, escaped from the abusive family life she had and left her hapless son to be abused by his father, Marcus, for over 10 years. She knew that the abuse is going on, but deliberately never met, comforted, or retook her job as a mom afterward, until he was 16 years old. Unlike many examples in the series, though, it's very much called out: the first time that the two reunited, Four proceeded to give her a middle finger and refused to meet her again (though he changed his mind eventually). Tris also doesn't like to be in her company for similar reasons.
  • In Jumper, David's mom runs away from her abusive husband but leaves Davy with him. Davy doesn't blame her, but she believes that she has to make amends for leaving him to face the abuse alone, as part of the Alanon step program.

     Live Action TV  

  • 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.
  • Veronica Mars: Logan's mother Lynn is very aware that her husband Aaron is a violent abuser who beats his son with a belt. She tries to ignore it by drinking extensively. She later commits suicide after Logan threatens to kill Aaron.
  • In Roseanne, the titular character and her sister were beaten as children by their father. When discussing this as adults, Jackie notes that whenever it happened their Mom wasn't any better, and would just go into the kitchen and wash dishes until it was over. Roseanne points out that their Mom's general approach to any problem was "ignore it and it'll go away."

     Webcomics  

  • Betty Sri'Vastra of Friendly Hostility 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 Jerry, but she still doesn't want to lose her son.


http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UselessBystanderParent