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Sometimes, age can be the deciding factor on whether a scenario is "pathetic but funny", "kind of sad", "upsetting", or "gut wrenching."
Broadly speaking, viewers have more sympathy for young characters. We expect children to have an emotional response to everything, and so we expect them to experience the emotion more acutely. "Staying true to yourself" is more important to young characters than "maintain your dignity at all times", so it's acceptable—even appropriate—for children to burst out into tears in situations where adults would get a funny look for doing the same.
The audience may feel mildly betrayed when a young character suffers a tremendous tragedy. Children are supposed to have an idealistic outlook on life; their parents should be there to protect them, they don't have to worry about money or jobs, and their daily trials and tribulations should be minor. Of course, it doesn't feel like "no big deal" when you are a child, and many children could tell you that this blissful interpretation of childhood does not match up with their reality. In general, though, kids aren't expected to have too many worries. So when kids get whacked over the head with the Reality Stick, in the form of divorce, bereavement, illness, poverty, etc., it seems like a betrayal of the child's inherent trust in the world. Adults, on the other hand, are supposed to know that it's a Crapsack World out there and not be too surprised when life goes to hell in a handbasket.
An adult that suffers the same problems isn't "meant" to be as badly affected, especially if those problems relate back to their parents and siblings. If a child's parents divorce, it's a tragedy, and all but the most Jerkass characters will be sympathetic and allow them to vent their feelings. If a twenty-five-year old receives news that his parents are divorcing and makes his feelings on the matter known, his various friends and family will tell him to "grow up" and probably throw in "your parents don't have to answer to you any more; they've got their own lives to live." Because the effects are less immediate, since the adult probably doesn't live with their parents (and those who do are often Acceptable Targets), they lose their "right" to be upset.
In extreme cases, this can be the difference between comedy and tragedy. A grown up unfavourite is usually a pathetic loser who blames all his problems on his childhood; a young unfavourite is a tragic woobie.
However, in other cases, a situation will be seen as devastating to an adult when they're shrugged off as a minor issue for children/teens. A thirteen year old who's heartbroken after breaking up with her first boyfriend will get a talk with her mum in which she's told that it's part of growing up, and she'll get over it—she's too young for boys anyway. A twenty-something woman who breaks up with her love interest will have her friends rallying around to support her (and often a parent who'd just love to introduce her to a more "appropriate" partner).
The clincher is often material security. Children (usually) live with their parents and siblings, so divorce, Parental Favoritism, moving house, and the death of a parent have a major impact on their lives—these issues affect their living conditions, and, moreover, they don't really get a say in what happens to them. If Dad decides they're moving to a different country so that he can chase a promotion, the kids' interests are usually glossed over.
Conversely, issues affecting employment, dignity, independence, and romance hit adult characters harder than kids. A teenager loses his Burger Fool McJob and it's no big issue—he's still got his parents to support him. A man with kids loses his job though... that's a problem, since he's the one that's doing the supporting, especially if he was a Burger Fool too, as it means money was probably already tight. Children are also portrayed as being able to "bounce back" from attacks on their self-esteem, such as bullying or social embarrassment, while these can have a long-reaching effect on adults. Psychoanalysis might rather disagree on that point, of course.
The most glaring difference turns up in instances involving grief. An adult who loses a parent gets less time to grieve than a child who loses a parent. The adult will be given one episode to cope with their loss, after which the parent is almost forgotten by the plot; the child will never really get over it, and the deceased parent will be frequently mentioned. An adult who loses a child, though, will probably be defined by that loss; outliving your own offspring seems unnatural and grossly unfair.
- In Pet Shop of Horrors, the death of Ms. Orcot has a bigger impact on her second son, Chris, who she died giving birth to, than her oldest son, Leon, who was eighteen when she died. Chris mentions his mother often, while Leon only really talks about her once or twice (although, arguably, a scene where an unconscious Leon dreams of speaking to his mother suggests he wasn't so much "unaffected" as "doesn't like to talk about it"). The manga makes some justification of this though; Chris feels the guilt of having "killed" his mom after his cousin accuses him of it, even though she realizes she went too far and feels badly for it. The fact that he never really knew her makes her an almost mythical figure in his mind. Leon, however, has his own, genuine memories of his mother, giving him an advantage over Chris.
- The pain of characters losing someone close to them is a key theme in Chrono Crusade, particularly in the manga. For Satella, Rosette, and Azmaria, the pain comes from lost parents and siblings. For the much-older Chrono? His lost loved one is his friend and possible love interest, Mary Magdalene. Of course, this is averted with Aion, who is also mourning his family members (his mother and twin brother) in a way.
- Sister Kate is another good example—being an older character, their greatest personal tragedy in the manga is a demotion due to their trust in a character that later proves incredibly destructive, and in the anime it's the loss of Rosette Christopher, who they're something of a surrogate parent to.
- Negi Springfield of Mahou Sensei Negima is an odd case. He's ten years old and witness his entire remaining family in the village he grew up in turned to stone at age four, now frequently ending up in life-threatening situations, including being run through with a sharpened rock spear and having his left arm sliced off (he had it reattached with magic medicine). Despite it all, he shrugs off everything that happens as a way of overcoming weakness and still likes to remain happy with his True Companions. The rest of the cast tell him he should act more like a kid and stop putting himself in such dangerous situations. He acknowledges his friend Anya as being stronger in this regard than him, given her fiery personality.
- In recent chapters, he is taunted by Kurt Godel into attacking him by telling him that he caused said destruction of the village. Negi then enters a pseudo evil side with which he curbstomps Godel in a massive display of rage by using his Black Magic (which is also deadly for him). Just watching it is disturbing, because it is completely justified and could really happen. After all, he has at that point become massively powerful, and it was implied throughout his training that he has a little "too much" affinity for his black magic. He only stops attacking Godel when his friends hold him back (and after one of them slaps him to humorous effect).
- Some speculate that this has contributed to some of the hatedom for Shinji Ikari in viewers of the English dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the original Japanese version, he is voiced by a woman, Megumi Ogata, and his voice sounds like that of a prepubescent child. In English, he is voiced by a man, Spike Spencer, and sounds more like a mid-puberty teenage boy. The theory is that audiences are more tolerant of angst when they hear the voice of a child than that of a more masculine, older-sounding voice, even though the scripts between the two versions don't differ significantly in their portrayal of the character.
- In the Rebuild of Evangelion English dubs, recorded more than a decade later, Spencer pitches his voice noticeably higher. It's especially apparent when comparing his lines in the first scenes with their equivalents in TV episode 1, when the English VAs were just getting the feel of the characters.
- A variation: Batman, though an adult, is totally defined by his single great childhood trauma. It's what drives him for the rest of his life. He never had to worry about security, because his parents were billionaires who left him everything, but he was ten, and his only remaining parental guidance came from someone who was as much servant as authority figure. In a recent comic, on a date, his date was tiptoeing around the issue... and the art is laid out in such a fashion that when he says he "got over it", even if it this weren't a Batman book, the reader would know he was lying. Also, unlike most modern rich characters' parents, who tend to be distant in order to grant as much sympathy as possible to the character in question (or at least excuse the fact that they're a raging Jerkass), young Bruce Wayne's parents appeared to be very involved in his upbringing—for one thing, they were shot on the way home from a family outing. Generally, it seems that if your incredibly rich parents are also incredibly good parents, they're going to die. If they're distant, they're probably going to live and be a constant obstacle. If not outright evil.
- In addition, his various sidekicks are mostly kids who have parental issues of their own. And if they don't, they tend to get 'em fast.
- The Ramona Quimby books are driven by this trope. Throughout the entire series of books, the things that Ramona goes through really are appropriate things for her to angst about, like being afraid of being called a copycat in a class project when it was Ramona who was being copied, having to deal with a big scary dog, and being late for school after reading the clock wrong. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 also averts Death by Newbery Medal, as despite winning the titular award, the book is light-hearted humor, and nobody dies.
- The Harry Potter series is particularly impressive in its usage and slow transition out of this trope: in the first book, being shunned by the student body over losing 150 points for being out of bounds at night is one of the most devastating pre-climax things to happen to the heroes, and them running back to their dorm while being chased by the caretaker is a heart-thumpingly suspenseful sequence. Fast-forward to book five, where no one gives a flying fuck about points, Harry is shunned by the student body for being on the wrong side of a massive political propaganda campaign due to impending war, and a full-blown La Résistance is taking place within the school walls. The emotional weight and narrative significance given to those events, in their respective books, is roughly the same.
- Something of a subversion in The Lord of the Rings, where Faramir's position as The Unfavourite is presented as a legitimate source of angst. But there, he's still under his father's authority, who is coping with his grief by ladling difficult and dangerous work onto Faramir. All the work that both Faramir and Boromir used to do, which is noticeable enough to be commented on in the streets. Plus, of course, he's lost a beloved brother, and his father's actual disfavor (as opposed to being the less favored) is new.
- Subverted at the conceptual level by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, who ages in reverse.
- IT plays with this trope. Derry is a town that has regular periods where the local Eldritch Abomination eats kids. The main characters end the killing spree twice. When they're kids, they recover quickly from all the scares, and they don't get caught up in angsting about all the dead kids. When they're adults...
- In the Hunger Games series, Katniss shifts between not taking her situation seriously enough and angsting over the small picture things. Whenever reality starts to sink in, she suffers a Heroic BSOD. The common reaction by readers is that she's being moody or whiny. True, adults should be able to adapt to even the most dire circumstances. But she's only 16, and her life as she knew it has essentially been over since the first chapter, making her lack of sanity justified.
- In various Red Dwarf flashbacks, we see a young Arnold Judas Rimmer, The Unfavourite of his family, who is bullied by his brothers and classmates, alternately abused and ignored by his parents and who is schooled in a pretty draconian environment. We first meet Rimmer as an adult, however, when all these factors have already taken their toll on his personality, resulting in a military-obsessed neurotic with an authority complex but very little actual ability. Rimmer is viewed by many fans as the funniest and most complex of all the Red Dwarf cast, but if the audience had first met him as a youngster, he would have been tragic rather than comic.
- Dog training show At The End Of My Leash featured a daughter unable to control her Great Dane pet. According to the dog trainer, this was due to a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. When all the surveillance footage showed was the daughter's mother screaming at her, berating her, and ordering her out of the house, most viewers could take a guess as to just why the girl had low self esteem. The trainer "cured" her by... screaming at her, insulting her, and accusing her of invading her parents' privacy. Why? Well, she was thirty, and had just moved back in with her mother and stepfather—thus, an acceptable target. Apparently, living with your parents is a far more serious offense than treating your adult offspring like dirt, since the dog trainer never even mentioned the mother's attitude. Needless to say, if the daughter had been fifteen years younger, any child behaviour expert would have been having a heart attack and accusing the parent (and perhaps the trainer) of psychological abuse.
- In Scrubs, Elliott's emotionally abusive parents are a large explanation for why she is so neurotic. In addition to this, J.D's brother and dead father were largely unsuccessful and absent figures for much of his early life, explaining his hero worship and need for a father figure in Dr. Cox.
- Inverted in Sports Night. Jeremy learns that his father has been having an affair for decades and his parents are divorcing, and tries to be stoic while the rest of the cast is supportive and wants him to let it out. Jeremy ends up throwing himself into a work project, projecting his feelings into it until he hits the breaking point.
- Aaron Sorkin must have had this happen to him—he spins out the exact same scenario with Sam in The West Wing.
- Supernatural's Sam and Dean have never really got over the loss of both their parents. Although this could be because they feel like it's their fault. After all, Mary only died because the demon was gunning for a six month old Sam and John died (and stayed in hell for a whole season) in a deal to save a comatose Dean's life. Also, the mother burned to death in a very graphic grisly inferno, and they spent their entire childhood's being carted around the country on a revenge quest, dealing with horrific monsters and violence no child should have to contend with, with Dean having to play substitute parent for his younger brother (starting when he was four). These aren't exactly normal childhood issues, so it's no wonder they continue to have some degree of impact.
- The characters in Friends regularly meet and break up with people, often in the space of one episode. Every time one character says, "It didn't work out" or something, the others let out a big sad "Ohhhhhhhh" and physically rush to comfort him/her.
- Subverted in an episode of NCIS, where it's touched upon that bullying and other things children are supposed to get over fairly quickly can, in fact, have lasting effects. McGee is interrogating a high school kid of a pretty clear Bully stereotype. He notes that the two boys who led him to this particular young man seemed pretty afraid of him, and tells him that while he'll forget them quick as anything, those two will remember him for the rest of their lives. He goes on to have a disarmingly personable conversation about what fun it is to pick on those little geeks, especially when they cry or soil themselves. Then, just as the kid is starting to think this interrogation will be smooth, silky cake, McGee gets right up in his face and tells the kid what fun he'll have, because he used to be one of those little geeks, but guess who's in the position of power now?
- This is sort of subverted in Full House, where the missing mother is hardly mentioned, and whenever it is, Bob Saget's character is often more affected by the loss than the kids.
- In the Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth, Ianto Jones expresses resentment of his father for breaking his leg while playing too roughly in a park. However, because the incident happened when he was a child and Ianto is almost in his 30s, it becomes part of a bizarre shame of his family that is gradually revealed as the series progress.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawn's whininess and kleptomania are considered severely obnoxious, but when you consider she's a 15 year old girl whose mother and sister died, and then her sister comes back completely depressed and incapable of taking care of her, and THEN her pseudo foster moms (Willow and Tara) break up, and then one of them DIES and the other tries to kill her, her behavior seems rather understandable. This is compounding the fact that her parents divorced when she was 8 or 9, she knows her sister is going to die young, she lives with the fact that she could easily become demon prey to fuck with or bait Buffy, Buffy seems to not give a damn about this, and more. The icing on the cake is that at 14, she finds out that she's a magical construct who's only existed for six months, that all of her memories are false, and that the people she loves the most knew this and didn't tell her. The fact that she hasn't snapped and killed them all or become a serial killer is actually pretty surprising.
- Roundly averted in How I Met Your Mother, where Marshall's dad dies at the beginning of season six and the character in question is allowed to continue grieving about it for the entire rest of the season. The grieving is also presented from an adult perspective, since it prompts him to wonder if he's doing something meaningful with his life. Also averted with respect to Barney's mommy and daddy issues—what, on other characters in other shows, would seem pathetic, is one of the very few sources of sympathy for the often-sociopathic/misogynistic Barney.
- Noah's Arc: Brandon's reaction towards Ricky's lack of any meaningful interest in him beyond sex, though its fairly subdued compared to most examples of this trope.
- This is oddly and consistently subverted in Star Trek the Next Generation. Consistently, when children lose one parent, they almost never grieve or even seem to notice, but their parents are broken up about it. The most notable and baffling example is Alexander, Worf's son, who grew up not knowing his father and lost his mother soon after meeting Worf for the first time. He lost the only parent he had ever known, left the home he had grown up on (Earth), and met a stranger who was supposed to be his father; Worf lost an old girlfriend. Regardless, Worf cried, and Alexander comforted him.
- Played with in Hamlet: Shakespeare waits until the last act to tell you that Hamlet is actually 30, making his previously understandable angst seem a little more odd; in the beginning he comes off as more of an adolescent. Of course, there's an alternate interpretation for the line that gives his age, making him 16 instead. And then there's the theory that Shakespeare only threw in that line in the first place because the actor playing Hamlet was older. So that leaves us... somewhere ambiguous. If that is the case, it does serve to show how he's been screwed over even worse by Claudius — Hamlet really should be on the throne and Claudius' "hey, I'll totally replace your dad! So get over it right now!" lines are just salt in the wound. Emphasised in the RSC production with David Tennant.
- To be fair, it could be said that Hamlet isn't on the throne because he was too busy studying abroad. However, this effectively makes Claudius a regent who was unwilling to turn over his power to the rightful ruler when he became able to rule, so Claudius still screwed Hamlet over.
- In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob, as a child, Fructose Riboflavin witnessed his bandit father's death at the hands of the emperor's guards. He'd given Fructose a device to prevent this, but Fructose was too little to use it right. The Emperor was then a complete callous jerk ass to the newly orphaned child. Fructose screamed that he would become emperor one day, ran away, and then spent almost two thousand years seeking revenge against the Nemesite royal family.
- In Shifters most of the main cast are in their late teens and attending High School. The drama this causes in their lives is, at times, worse than the supernatural problems that they contend with.
- One of the reasons Survival of the Fittest can be so heartwrenching is that it covers situations that no teenager should ever have to experience (the murder of close friends, occasionally rape, etc).
- In the sequels to The Land Before Time, Littlefoot seems to have come to terms with his mother's death, put it behind him, and has been able to maintain a happy, healthy lifestyle. Understandable when considering that accepting loss was one of the major themes of the original movie.