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Writing for Young Adults: Parental Absence

Updated on March 7, 2012
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In stories written for young adults about young adults (sometimes even by young adults), the action is often centered around the tween-age protagonist(s) while their parents are usually nowhere to be found. This is done so that the protagonists can exhibit character growth such as becoming independent, which is what happens in coming-of-age stories and adventure series. Other times the absence of parents reflects on real-life situations and lifestyles. In the case of Disney movies, however, it has become a cliche, as in most of these films one or both of a child's birth parents are dead and may or may not have been replaced by semi-evil legal guardians. If you are writing for a character or characters and are thinking of how to develop their family life, please consider these categories of parental involvement (or, rather, non-involvement):

Missing Mom/Disappeared Dad - assigns these terms to parents who are not present in a child's life, usually without explanation within the story. For whatever reason, they just are not there. This could be because they're dead, but more likely they are workaholics who are never home, or only get home after their child has gone to sleep at night and must leave again before their child wakes up in the morning (common with working fathers in Japan). In bleaker situations, the parents are divorced and only one parent has full custody while the other has little-to-no direct contact at all. Still bleaker are the situations that involve child abandonment. Before you decide to invoke this trope, consider why the parents are not around and what effect(s) it has on your tween-age character(s). Choosing to write stories in which all the action takes place while the parents are at work (i.e., the protagonists are latch-key kids) is one way of getting around this. Home and school dramas are practically made of this trope.

Free-Range Children - One step up from being a latch-key kid is being a free-range kid. As is commonly the case in anime (and real-life Japan), children are free to walk to and from school and anywhere else they need to go by themselves on a regular basis. It's less common in America (latch-key kids never wander far from their neighborhood or even their house); at least, my parents were too overprotective to let me do this, but I did always see people my age walking around town when I was growing up. This is a big trust issue. While some may see this as permissive and irresponsible parenting, others will recognize this phenomenon as parents trusting their children and the children earning it by not abusing this trust in return. Lost, kidnapped, and/or runaway children are subject to a completely different set of parameters depending on individual circumstances regarding their overall or plot-related situation.

Disney Death - Commonly known as the Parent-Killing Disney Disease, this phenomenon usually involves the untimely demise of one or both parents due to 1) illness/childbirth, 2) war/murder, or 3) accident (in order of popularity). This method normally appears in fairy tales and fantasy stories, which Disney is well-known for. However, these things happen in real life as well, so you should not feel shame in writing this way when the situation calls for it. Just bear in mind that it has been done to death and you may have to argue your case for invoking this trope. If your story takes place in an orphanage or a foster home, that's a logical and interesting way to start. The important aspect of character interaction and backstory is family or group dynamics, so feel free to play around with your ideas without making them sound trite or cheap.


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      lilMissScrittore 6 years ago

      I'm a huge Disney fan BUT have noticed several issues with the thematic pull throughout most of their movies and frankly it is a bit concerning. I love your commentary on these themes and how to benefit from awareness of them in your own writing.

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      Mike Pugh 6 years ago from New York City

      Wow, your take on the whole melodrama Disney and the film industry has portrayed lost children, and the whole family break down was fantastic. I have noticed many of these well known, down trotted realities myself throughout my years of movie, and TV watching, and was a sort of latch-key kid myself.

      My mom use to let me go outside, and roam into the city by myself at a very young age, and it was quite the experience I must say for me. I had much more freedom than most children could ever dream of, me and my older brother actually. I will write about many of these experiences in due time.

      Thanks for sharing such an awesomely insightful hub on such a subject. Voted up, and I commend you on making such a great analysis here.