Dealing with Divorce and Your Adult Child

By Sharon Pastore, Main Line Family Law Center
Parent with Adult Child

Well-intended parents whose marriage is over sometimes choose to “wait until the children are older” to actually get divorced. They intuit that young adults will suffer less in their adjustment to their parents’ separation than they would have as children. In fact, no such generalization is true, because no two children experience divorce in the same way, regardless of their age.

And each member of every family adjusts to the new family configuration with varying degrees of success, over time. Parents who choose to delay conflict reduction are not doing their children a favor at any age

Divorce is differently challenging on young adults. In the wake of their parents’ divorce, many adult children are forced to see their childhood home disappear at the same time that they are going through dramatic life changes in their own lives.

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The perceived dissolution of “home” with the implicit sense of security that it brings, can be overwhelming. Some adult children have had no idea that there were marital problems and are shocked not only by the divorce, but by their own misperceptions. They may wonder if their parents’ marriage was always a façade; were they ever happy? What is their real family history? They may question the very value of marriage.

Adult children may experience an abrupt coming of age with the realization that their parents are real people with real problems. This insight can be unsettling and disorienting, and create the need for distance while the adult children develop new understandings about, and relationships to, their parents (such insight is not without benefits).

So when is the right time to get divorced?

Simply put, when your marriage is over. Reduce conflict and create a healthy emotional environment. If this occurs when your children are older, there are ways to create and maintain a positive and healthy relationship with them. 

Not Sure Where to Start?

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Be prepared and patient.

Know what to expect when expecting divorce with your adult child. Your divorce brings about a lot for adult children to take in. They have to adjust and move on from a lifetime of family traditions and activities. And as mentioned above, they may be coming to grips with the change in your lives at the same time that they are leaving home for the first time by entering college or the workforce, beginning a family, and living on their own.

They counted on you to be there for them. Some children may be resentful or even retract themselves from the situation entirely. Your patience is crucial. Give them space.

Acknowledge their pain and disappointment, but don’t try to fix it. They don’t have to understand all at once. Let your children cope with the transition as they need, and be there when they reach out.

Be careful about what information you share with your child.

Even though your children are adults, remember that they are still your children. Some information is acceptable to share with them, but some they don’t want or need to hear. Children don’t need to know every detail of your marital problems. You are entitled to your privacy. And remember, children may not keep shared information completely confidential, especially if it stirs deep feelings that they need to explore. When speaking to your children about the circumstances surrounding your divorce, be mindful of their boundaries—they may be trying to establish their own limits. 

Don’t speak badly about the other parent.

Remember that most adult children have enjoyed positive relationships with both parents throughout their childhood. As angry or upset as you may be at your spouse, it is unfair to sabotage a lifelong relationship under the guise of “just letting you know who he/she really is.” Healthy parents allow their adult children to respect their parental relationships; new dimensions may or may not evolve over time. It is you who is starting a new life without your spouse, not your child.

Don’t only lean on your children for support.

People going through divorce may instinctively turn to their adult children for both emotional support and advice. Although your children know you well and want what is the best for you, it is also important to seek well-informed, objective counsel. Your children do not understand all of the nuances and dynamics of your relationship, nor should they. Moreover, they are trying to cope with the divorce themselves. Continue to be their parent. Reassure them that you respect their opinions and are always open to conversation; and that you are getting guidance; and that you will continually grow stronger.

Be a role model.

Your adult children may be going through difficult life challenges just like you. You can be an inspiration to them if you are able navigate an amicable divorce with resolve, and then take control of the life you want to live. Talk honestly about the process, and identify everything you are doing to take care of yourself. Weave a can-do attitude into your conversation. Be proactive. Teach resiliency while you are learning it yourself. 

About the Author

Sharon Pastore, Main Line Family Law Center

Picture of Sharon Pastore, Main Line Family Law Center Sharon Pastore is Co-Founder of Main Line Family Law Center, which was established in 2012. She is on a mission to generate awareness, understanding and trust around mediation as a healthier option for separation and divorce well before a client's first consultation. She draws upon over 17 years in nonprofit, education and marketing to enable more spouses to "get to the table" and mediate successfully.

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Topics: Divorce after 50