Do Adult Children of Divorce Have It Easier Than Young Children?

Middle-aged woman sits at kitchen table next to adult child, talking, while father stands in background with crossed armsIt 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.

Reference:

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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  • Keeleigh

    Keeleigh

    March 24th, 2017 at 11:27 AM

    I only wish that it wasn’t hard but my parents got a divorce when I was in college and that completely rocked my world!

    I was lucky that they are still relatively friendly with each other but I think that the break up made me realize that they had been unhappy together all these years just basically trying to hold things together until I graduated and moved out.

    That just made me contemplate how they could have given up so much for me to be happy and for them to be so sad.

  • Corinne

    Corinne

    March 24th, 2017 at 2:12 PM

    Adults SHOULD have the capability to deal with this but I find that I have many friends who get more broken up about their parents divorcing than younger kids probably do. I am guessing that is because while kids don’t understand the full ramifications or significance of the breakup adult children certainly do and it is heartbreaking in so many ways. The one thing that I would suggest is to think about all of the times that both of your parents have been there to support you through the toughest times and do your best to give back to them in the same way. This probably isn’t something that they ever could have imagined either so it is not easy for anyone.

  • Carrington

    Carrington

    March 25th, 2017 at 10:09 AM

    I would have to try to look at things from their perspective, something that should be easier to do as an adult than it is for somebody young. Cut them some slack and think of how you would wish to be treated if you ever found yourself in that same situation.

  • mary T

    mary T

    March 27th, 2017 at 8:24 AM

    There will be a different kind of hurt as an adult than what children feel.

    Children might think that what is happening is their fault or they may experience a sense that they are being abandoned; whereas for adult there might not be any of that but it is still going to hurt knowing that your parents are hurting.

    It can though in some cases actually being children back closer with their parents if they have strayed apart, so you always have to look for something positive in it.

  • Ben

    Ben

    March 28th, 2017 at 8:01 AM

    It can be tough to know that there are problems when you haven’t lived at home with them for a long time. You might have noticed things as a child but now that you don’t live there, you know, out of sight out of mind.

  • SB

    SB

    March 28th, 2017 at 3:13 PM

    It is no less traumatic for adults than for children. My parents went through a divorce when I was 33 and it hurt the same as if it would have hurt when I was 13. I was sad for them and for the fact that our family as I had always known it wouldn’t be the same anymore. I was sad that my children wouldn’t be able to hang out typically with their grandparents together. It was a very odd feeling for me to go to family events but we didn’t seem complete anymore. I still struggle at times to accept the changes and yet I know that to be a good daughter I have to.

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    March 30th, 2017 at 12:49 PM

    There are times when I have been absolutely sure that kids are a whole lot more resilient than the adults in many situations. They are somehow able to bend a little more and roll with the flow than we can be as adults who have become so set in our ways.

  • Alice

    Alice

    April 11th, 2018 at 6:41 AM

    My dad left my mum for a man when I was 18. It is just as hard at 27 as it was when I was 18. It has ruined my life. My youngest brother has been a drug addict since it happened when he was 14. I can’t have a relationship with my mother because she is too invested in her new husband and his family to support her own children anymore. I wouldn’t wish this whole experience on my worst enemy.

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