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Parents in YA

Parents can be kind of a problem in YA. How is your MC supposed to get anything done with parents staring over her shoulder? But parents do exist, and you have to figure out what to do with them. Children—especially nowadays—come from such a variety of family situations. Married (happily or unhappily), divorced, same-sex couples, adopted, one or both parents MIA or dead, raised by a grandparent; the list goes on and on.

There seems to be this idea that parents need to be ‘gotten rid of’ in one way or another, or your teens won’t be able to get up to any mischief. Sometimes this is true. Parents can have a huge effect on the way their children behave, so if you have a horribly absent parent, or a parent who dies, it might catalyze behavior in your main character that pushes the story onward. But characters with loving, wonderful parents can still wade deeply into trouble, if need be. So think twice before getting rid of your characters’ parents. Is it necessary to do so, or are you using it as a plot device?

Sometimes parental absence (or presence) can be misused. Just like anything else, I need to believe it. Parents can’t be observant only when it’s convenient—for example, the MC has been behaving strangely for weeks without the parents noticing in the least, but the one time she really needs her freedom, her parents catch her doing something minor and give her an over-the-top grounding. I don’t believe this. I don’t believe it when every parent of every person in the story is absent, whether mentally or physically. Or when every single one is so obscenely overbearing that the MC and all her friends are tearing their hair out trying to get away.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that sometimes parents really do need to be off doing their own thing, or need to be dead, or need to be bad parents. But it has to feel natural. It has to work within the story, not feel like it was forced in like a square peg in a round hole. I don't want to watch your characters running around crazily trying to deal with something that could've been fixed in three seconds flat by just asking an adult for help. I know, I know. Your teen MC should be doing things on their own. But not when it's unreasonable. It's like not googling something just because if they google it, you'll lose half your plot. Or not having cell service in the middle of a city, for the same reason.

Parents, like setting, need to be given thought. Consider yourself and your friends (even if you’re an adult!) Were you all raised exactly the same? Did you all have the exact same family situation? Wasn’t there always that one friend whose house you didn’t really want to go to, because their parents made you uncomfortable? Or that friend whose house you always wanted to go to because their mom was some kind of baking genius? Parents who embarrassed themselves by trying to look and/or act way younger than they were, and failing miserably?

There are all kinds. Give it some serious thought, and your story will be better—and more realistic—for it.
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. Great post, Kaitlin. I agree. I don't like when I read a book and the parents are just strangely absent. It's so much better if there is a reason WHY the parents are absent and it plays into the story - for instance, in Holly Black's TITHE, Kaye's mom is emotionally and mentally absent, and there's a reason for it. She's dysfunctional, she probably has a drinking problem, and like a real person, you can see affects of her mom's absence on who Kaye is.

  2. Thanks for sharing Kaitlin, you make several good points here.

    I think in YA many authors fear that having normal, present parents would bore the reader or bog the story down. After all it's supposed to be about the independent teen finding him or herself right?

    Sure, but I think you make a good point here that the parents don't have to be totally absent or entirely dysfunctional for it to work. And if they're always that way it starts to feel a bit forced.

  3. Love this post, because I mostly write within families. Even if the parent and child have no relationship, that leaves a mark. It seems gone is the age where Alice can trek through Wonderland without missing her father. We very much need to relate to our own lives in even the most fantastical adventures, and we all have parents or a substantial lack there of that needs to be represented in our stories.

  4. Great post. I think it's easy to make parents "disappear". Not all jobs are 9 to 5. Some parents go to conferences and bring their spouse along. I saw this often as a drug rep. And some, like my parents, just need a break from their teens (my brother--not me of course!) and go on vacation without them.

    I prefer writing stories where the parents are still involved in the teen's life . . . one way or another.

  5. I can see why many authors keep the parents "absent." Which makes it a good challenge to have them involved in the story in a way that really works. Great post, thanks!

  6. Excellent thoughts, Kaitlin. I've been thinking a good deal more about the role of parents in my stories. It's very easy - and common, unfortunately - to kill them off. But that isn't always the best thing for the story.

  7. There aren't any parents in my first novel. We're only ever at two of the characters houses, so noone else has any chance for their parent to show up.

    The novel is set in a ghetto. And I work in the absence of the parents. One girl finds herself in need of money, but she can't ask her parents because they both work 2 jobs both day s and she doesn't want to take their hard-earned cash. The other kid's Dad walked out and his mom is a prostitute.

    The novel is "one of those this is what kids can get into in the ghetto" things. But now I'm kinda worried. Should I insert a parent? AAAAAAAHHHH!

  8. This is a great post. Parents (good or bad) have a huge impact on their children. I know I am who I am today because of my wonderful parents -- and no one could write a book about me (or any of my friends with their varying experiences) without making our parents an important part of the story.

    I don't think parents need to be omni-present or big characters to be realistic, of course, but their presence and influence makes for a more believable story.

  9. Awesome, well-thought out post. Loved this - "It's like not googling something just because if they google it, you'll lose half your plot." Reminded me of Harry Potter LOL. Initially I had my MC's parents sort of ignoring the fact that MC was going on a cross-country road trip... and they didn't know where she was for half the book. After realizing that was super unrealistic and doing some edits, the "freedom from parents" thing actually became a big plot point, and I think the book is more interesting with it. It's definitely something I'm dealing with and I know my friends are dealing with. =]

  10. Excellent advice. I just read two books, both of them have two-parent families. In one, the parents were so unobservant, the girl has a boy living in her room for weeks. In her room! I'm not sure that would ever happen, even with unobservant parents. But this book, it did.

    The other one, the parents were active in their daughter's life and she spent time telling them everything. It was actually sort of refreshing.

  11. Love this post! My mom has always been very present in my life, so I hate to see parents so strangely absent in YA. Having them alive and *gasp* involved, I think, would create more interesting challenges and dynamics for characters. I hope so, at least, since I love to focus on families in my own writing!

  12. Awesome post. My parents were really involved in my life when I was a teen and I still got in loads of ridiculous situations! I think that in doing away with parents authors are avoiding a character challenge that could greatly enrich their work. Parents can be all kinds of messed up, too, and they present their own subplot opportunities in a YA novel.

    @Elana, I won't name names, but I just read the book you are talking about (where the boy lives in the girl's room for weeks) and it totally bugged me. I mean, that could happen, I GUESS, but it reads like a cop-out!

  13. I love this post.

    In all of my stories the parents are either dead or don't really care, and by reading this post I thought about what I was doing.

    Thanks :)

  14. I know what book Elana is talking about ;)

    great post, Kaitlin. it's true that ya plots often shun parents meddling in their dynamics, but absence of parents needs to be just as realistic as present parents.


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Item Reviewed: Parents in YA Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward