It is a common belief divorce will not be nearly as traumatic for adult children as it often is for young children. That is a myth. Although it may look and feel different, adult children are just as impacted by their parents divorcing as young children are.
When an adult relates that their parents are divorcing, others typically respond by assuming the adult child will not be impacted or the impact will be minimal. However, the sense of loss many adult children experience when their parents divorce can be all-consuming. Adult children of divorce experience not only the loss of their parents being together, but the additional loss of the family unit that has been in place for many years. This is not to minimize the reality young children are often deeply impacted by a sense of loss of the family as a unit. For the adult child, the difference is they have typically experienced many years, even decades, of the family system operating a certain way, and thus may feel that sense of loss at a deeper level.
Adult children don’t always know their parents are struggling in their marriage and can be shell-shocked to find out their parents are divorcing. It is often not as easy to adapt as an adult as it is as a child. Adult children can find themselves questioning their identity when the family unit is no longer functioning as it has been for many years.
When a young child experiences their parents divorcing, the parents often try to protect the child from the trauma and the charged emotions divorce can be a catalyst for. Conversely, when adult children experience their parents divorcing, adult children can find themselves taking on a more active participant role. One such possible role is a confidant, as their parents confide in them and share information that would not typically be shared with a young child. Adult children of divorce often find themselves questioning the authenticity of the family as they knew it and the family unit they assumed was permanent.
Another difficult issue many adult children of divorce experience is when the family home, a foundation for the family for many years, is sold or lost. Adult children of divorce may also find themselves in a role reversal. If the divorcing parents are older and have not had to care for themselves independently, they may look to their adult children to help them transition out of the marriage.
Adult children of divorce may also find themselves in a role reversal. If the divorcing parents are older and have not had to care for themselves independently, they may look to their adult children to help them transition out of the marriage.
Some things divorcing parents of adult children should be aware of:
- It won’t hurt any less; it will be challenging in a different way than when a young child experiences their parents divorcing.
- When adult children of divorce find out their parents stayed together for them, they may feel angry, guilty, and perhaps doubt their own marriages and/or lives.
- Adult children of divorce often want to know why their parents are divorcing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want all the information.
- It can be just as harmful to adult children of divorce to hear one parent say negative things about the other parent as it is for young children.
- Parents of adult children of divorce still need to co-parent, just in a different way.
- Adult children of divorce still need their parents to be their parents as well as grandparents to their own kids.
- Parents of adult children of divorce need to think about how they will manage once they are divorced without burdening their adult children.
- As with young children, adult children of divorce should not be put in the middle of their divorcing parents. Divorcing parents need to have their own resources for emotional support.
- Adult children of divorce generally prefer to be told in person their parents are divorcing as opposed to finding out over the phone, text, email, or through a different party.
It can also be confusing and upsetting for grandchildren to experience their grandparents divorcing. They may become fearful their own parents will also divorce. Family traditions also come into play. How will the adult children and their families participate in holiday and birthday celebrations with divorced parents/grandparents? Will the parents of the adult children be able to attend functions together? Organizing the logistics can be a challenge all the way around.
Therapy for Adult Children of Divorce
There is a small group of therapists who focus on the impact of divorce on adult children in collaboration with attorneys. Therapists who do this are often referred to as divorce coaches. Although divorce coaching is also used with couples who have young children, the needs of adult children of divorce is an area being looked at more closely throughout the helping professions. Mental health professionals at large need to be aware of the needs of adult children of divorce and of the impact their parents’ divorce may have.
If you have experienced (or are experiencing) your parents’ divorce as an adult, support is available.
Gordon Julien, J. (2016, April 21). Never Too Old to Hurt from Parents’ Divorce. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/fashion/weddings/never-too-old-to-hurt-from-parents-divorce.html
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