In some shows that revolve around teenagers, preteens or younger children, adults can't do anything right — if they appear on-screen at all. Teachers tend to be annoying sticks-in-the-mud who do nothing but spoil people's fun. Parents are clueless, no longer care, or are either over- or under-protective. And any other designated authority figures the kid might come across? Forget it.
Usually, this is just plot necessity (especially on comedy shows). After all, a High-School Hustler could hardly get anything done if the teachers kept their eyes open, and if the parents were vigilant; being told that You Are Grounded! would wreck the plot.
But on a handful of drama shows, there's a real venom to it. Radio Free Roscoe is about a group of heroic teens who defy a tyrannical school administration. On a smaller scale, Degrassi: The Next Generation has episodes where it is implied that stealing school property is no big deal, but it's disgraceful to inform on the thief.
This can also occur in shows where you Can't Get Away with Nuthin' — kids who break school rules somehow always get caught, but due to bad luck, not because a teacher was alert.
This is also common when adults are told something is happening, but simply don't believe it, resulting in a Cassandra Truth.
One of the reasons this trope occurs is the Anthropic Principle. If the adults could fix everything? Then the story wouldn't be very interesting. Though there is a lot more to this trope than a simple "Adults must be useless" - writers can easily use this trope in many ways.
This trope often gives the impression that only teens or younger kids are capable of saving the world and stuff. The problem with this is that it implies that there's no point in telling adults about your problems because they'd either disbelieve you or be too useless to help.
However, this trope can occasionally be used in a more mature fashion to demonstrate a moral about growing up and realizing that adults — even your own parents — are not all-powerful. This is especially common in military or war-themed shows and literature, where the point is that adults are ultimately unable to protect the younger generation. This version is, unfortunately, often Truth in Television. Another interpretation of this is merely that the adults who can help won't because the dilemma's solution (at least the obvious and often more exciting one) would pretty much wind up breaking several laws and safety codes. This can be especially true in a lot of shows involving the police or military; the ones who strictly adhere to code are always shown incompetent whereas the ones who break code are the competent ones. It may be a good way to teach that you can't solve all your problems by just asking the grown-ups to help.
Another seldom-used aspect of this trope sort of plays off the above. In this version, it's not that Adults are useless; quite the opposite. The problem is that the protagonists — because of youthful embarrassment, a need to prove themselves or simple ego — can't ask for help, or accept it when it's given. The message here is that asking for help is a good thing (one can't do everything alone) and not bothering to trust people with more skill/experience ultimately causes more trouble than it's worth. This version is also Truth in Television.
Another more mature variant of the trope (and one that is also unfortunately Truth in Television) is that the adults are abusive and other adults around cover for the abuse or justify it and/or the abusers. While in many settings there's someone the child could eventually find for help, in some (small towns in The '50s, before the internet, fundamentalist religious societies) there isn't or the children don't know/can't find the actually supportive adults and/or can't identify their treatment as abuse.
Sometimes it may even be a simple case of Poor Communication Kills - sometimes the adults seem worthless because they aren't seeing it from the characters' point of view. Or a combination of the above where the kids simply don't tell the adults so they don't know.
Parental Obliviousness and Police Are Useless are subtropes. An Obstructive Bureaucrat may show up, but it's not something the younger age group encounters often. The logical extreme of this trope is when There Are No Adults.
See also: Teenage Wasteland, Competence Zone, Parent ex Machina, Best Years of Your Life, Lazy Husband, Babysitter from Hell and Antics-Enabling Wife.
Not to Be Confused with Humans Are Morons, which deals with everybody being like this.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Animated Films
- Live-Action Films
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Western Animation
- Most adults characters in Noonbory and the Super 7 are pretty much only there to be saved by the Super Sensors. The only aversion is Doctorbory, who is a competent caregiver.
- In Peanuts, adults are only implied, but never seen, thus the kids have to deal with fairly mature situations on their own.
- In "The Wise Little Girl", a rich man tries to scam his poorer brother by claiming a foal found under his cart is his vehicle's offspring instead of his sibling's mare's, and the penniless brother needs his seven-year-old girl to make a bunch of judges and a king see and admit that a cart cannot give birth to a horse.
- Quadrophenia shows the other side of this- even though the plot opens with Jimmy asking for help from a therapist, preacher, and his mom, as events wear on it's implied (even all but stated) that the real problem is that he can't accept help. As a work about youth, this makes perfect sense really, but considering his epiphany at the end, perhaps he can't be blamed for having to find his own way.
- In the Cool Kids Table game Creepy Town, the teachers supervising the kids setting up the haunted house are incredibly ineffectual, especially considering the dangerous weapons (such as real axes and a flamethrower) that they let the kids utilize.
- Keri's mom in game Bloody Mooney gets eaten by Mooney, the government agents both die fighting it, and her butler pisses himself in fear. The teens are able to save the day by forcing it into a van and away from the light of the moon to de-transform it.
- In Strange Woods discusses this trope throughout the series as the teens of Whitetail take this viewpoint about their elders, leading them to train with Howl to learn survival skills. It's then played with in episode 5, as while the teenage Lexy and John Francis rally everyone to save Peregrine and Shane when everyone else is initially sure they'll be fine, the teamwork of the whole community, including the adults, helps them get home alive.
- Zig-zagged by The Children's Television Workshop and Sesame Street. Subverted at first. Mr. Snuffleupagus was originally created as a way for children to relate to having an imaginary friend whom adults didn't believe in. The problem, though, was that Snuffy was undeniably real; it was just the adults' bad luck that they never ran into him. Critics pointed out children could interpret the situation another way: Adults would never believe you even when you're telling the truth - a dangerous moral when trying to get kids to report child abuse to an authority like a teacher or the police. As a result, Snuffy was revealed to the adults, and to drive the point home, the adults even apologized to Big Bird for not believing him. However played straight in Abby's Flying Fairy School with Ms. Sparklenose. For each crisis of the day, Ms. Sparklenose's guidance to her preschool-age students is always some variation of her telling them to solve the problem themselves.
- Played straight in Little Fears, which is all about children fighting against not-so-imaginary monsters that even the most well-intentioned adults just plain can't see or otherwise perceive as real. As player characters grow older, they become more and more competent in the general sense but increasingly lose the inner "magic" that comes with childhood, until around their fourteenth birthday (if nothing worse has befallen them before then) they too will forget about or dismiss their adventures and join the ranks of the ignorant soon-to-be-adults...
- In Monsters and Other Childish Things, adults are completely useless as only monsters can fight monsters... and only kids have monsters. Well, an adult can have a monster, but he's more likely to be a Psychopathic Manchild than anything remotely helpful. The closest most adults get to useful is if your character has a Relationship with one, like their parents, which means they inspire the kid to do better.
- In Pokéthulhu, player characters are required to be 16 or under... everybody above high school age is either terrified and in hiding or dangerously insane.
- Teenagers from Outer Space takes this trope and cranks it up. The rules specifically state that characters either have militant parents who will punish even the smallest infraction harshly, or hippie parents that refuse to take an interest in your life. However, since the main point of the character interaction is teenaged drama, having antagonistic parents works.
- Tales from the Loop: Downplayed. Every Kid Hero has a Connection, a trusted adult who can help bring them back from the Despair Event Horizon. However, a Connection will rarely, if ever, take a part in the Kids adventures, and all other adults are uniformly useless.
- In the musical 13, the only kid whose parents are mentioned is Evan, when his parents get divorced and when Archie guilts Evan's mom into buying tickets to the R- rated movie "The Bloodmaster."
- Euripides' Alcestis: Admetus is enraged that not even his parents could bring themselves to die for him, causing Alcestis to die instead.
- William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The teenage protagonists are halted at every turn by their parents and other authority figures. Friar Laurence tries to help, but he decides the best way to do this is marry the pair and hope for the best. It didn't end well. This is more like a severe case of Lust Makes You a fucking MORON, as the adults try and offer fairly decent advice, but the protagonists are too blinded, deafened, and otherwise rendered Too Dumb to Live by love to bother listening to it, or even think more than five minutes ahead. Ironically, Friar Laurence's original plan would have worked, if events had played out the way he expected. He just had no way to foresee the murder of Tybalt and how that would complicate the plot. Even then, he still had a handle on things, and it was only a series of unfortunate coincidences that resulted in both title characters killing themselves. Had the messengers various people sent about various events arrived in a somewhat less unfortunate order...
- This is probably the fourth strongest theme in Spring Awakening. The first three being sex, sex and sex.
- At the end of West Side Story, the few adults who have appeared in the story are left alone on stage after the youth gangs carry Tony away, emphasizing how little the supposed authority figures have done. Being based on the above-mentioned Romeo and Juliet, this is unsurprising. And lampshaded for all authority figures in the song Gee, Officer Krupke. The adults are useless even to one another.
- Miho from Liar Liar was being stalked by Wakabayashi for a while. He sent her letters daily, called her house, and took pictures of her behind her back and left some on her desk. She feared for her life but the police couldn't do anything until he physically harassed her and the adults at school didn't believe her. She decided to kill him, though she couldn't get herself to do it so she got Yukari to do it instead.
- Both played straight and subverted depending on the Higurashi: When They Cry arc. In some arcs the parents and teachers are more-or-less oblivious of the protagonist's Sanity Slippage and murderous behaviors, the police aren't much help, Child Services is useless, and the doctors seem to be in on the conspiracy. In others it's shown the police are keeping close watch, the local doctor is studying Hinamizawa Syndrome while he is oblivious to his nurse being the Big Bad, and adults in general are the key to most of the non-Downer Ending arcs.
- The Fruit of Grisaia: The six main character of Mihama Academy all sport painful pasts, and most of it is caused by adults, most specifically parents failing to do their jobs properly.
- In the Father Tucker shorts, none of the adults at Father Tucker's church ever do anything about his molesting of children and aren't the least bit suspicious by the fact that children he's been trusted with tend to turn up bloodied and bruised.
- In KIKEN, this is a Deconstructed Trope. That's because adults aren't entirely useless — some want to change the world, but are trying to balance their careers (i.e. Emiri, Juuri, Yukari and Yamato) and some are too cynical or apathetic to even believe in a changing Earth (i.e. Takeo).
- In lonelygirl15, all of the TAAG's parents who aren't dead (or evil) are this.
- Bree's dad does display competence, for a while.
- Shows up frequently on Not Always Learning, the authority figures depicted often neglect or flat out refuse to help or look after kids they're in charge of, and some of them actively attempt to sabotage them. On a lighter note, there are several stories of teachers who just take the path of least resistance and hand out passing grades regardless of effort or merit.
- Princess Natasha: Downplayed, as the issue isn't that the adult spies are incompetent, but rather that the Big Bad, Lubek, was in charge of the country's spy network and personally trained their best agents prior to his brief stint as king and leaving for the United States. Natasha volunteers herself to undertake the mission of taking down her uncle, reasoning that since she was born after he fled the country, she'd be less recognizable. She also has the assistance of Oleg Boynski, a spy who dropped out of the academy during his first week due to bullying, and thus also can avoid immediate detection.
- Story Booth: Played for Drama. Depending on the video, adults are either too clueless, busy, or apathetic to provide moral or emotional support.
- Adults, at least in the Pregame of Survival of the Fittest, are almost always unable to stop any fights, bullying, drug use, stealing, etc. The main reason of this is that if handlers want to establish their characters as "bad", they don't want to have them be caught by adults, as that would ruin the reputation.
- Subverted to an extent in the v4 pre-game, where players were warned that inappropriate behavior, if caught, would result in exclusion from the school trip.
- The Twins (2022): Played for Drama. The teacher never catches on to Lucas' true nature nor bothers to understand Lake's side of the story. She also doesn't notice anything wrong when "Lucas" is shown with broken glasses.
- Whateley Universe: Both averted and played straight. Many adults in the Whateleyverse are in fact quite competent when shown, at least within their areas of expertise; yet since the focus is generally on the (mis)adventures of mutant teenagers, it's just as common to see some adult or other left holding the Idiot Ball. (This is occasionally justified; at least one story has a house mother being unable to see the very real problems between two roommates due to magical manipulation and thus refusing to reassign them.) According to older characters, Adults used to not be useless when it came to the bullying situation in previous years. However Carson has admitted to have committed herself to a plan involving allowing bullies free rein. What exactly that plan entails, has not yet been revealed.
- We know a bit more about the plan. Apparently, it involves making sure the Don stays at the school, as he has a part to play in a coming Apocalypse-level event.
- Played straight later when the students band together against the ultimate enemy and decide to exclude all adults because they would either take too long to convince or take too much time to act.
- Taylor Hebert, protagonist of the superhero story Worm, begins the story as a student at Winslow High and subject of an extended and vicious bullying campaign. Of all the teachers and administrators at the school, exactly one notices, exactly zero offer any meaningful assistance, and some are actively, willfully against her. It's tragically telling that when Taylor finally meets a genuine Reasonable Authority Figure, she suspects she's under some mental compulsion.