Divorcing Parents Can Be Hard For Adult Kids, How To Offer Help

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Divorce is never easy. In fact, most of us would rather crawl through a mile of broken glass, over steep hills, in gym shorts than go through the pain of a divorce! A divorce affects everyone in the family, no matter how young or old.

Divorce sucks. Navigating your parents’ divorce can feel like a betrayal of all that you thought was true.

 It’s tough on everyone involved, including your kids. Many couples try to stay together for the children, thinking that it will give a sense of stability to the family. The truth is, your children hear you fighting, they see the anger on your face, and they can feel the tension in the home.

Newsflash: your marital unhappiness is not a secret! The idea that staying in a miserable marriage will create emotionally healthy kids is false.

So what happens if you make the decision to “stay together for the kids?”

You will likely end up divorcing when your kids are grown adults.

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When Your Parents Divorce

When your children are grown and have lives of their own, it can be even more challenging to navigate the fallout of a marital breakup. If you are married and considering divorce, you may be struggling to find the right words to say when it comes to your adult children. You want to be supportive, but you also want to make sure they understand why you and their other parent are going your separate ways.

To be truthful, there is nothing easy about telling your adult kids bad news. You should be prepared for a range of responses. Some adult kids will feel relief when they hear you are divorcing. They secretly wished you would have divorced years ago but might have kept quiet about it.

Or your adult children might feel compelled to take sides. They might feel a need to support or protect one parent more than the other. Despite being incredibly painful, you must stay as emotionally neutral as possible. Emotional reactions can be unpredictable; try to work on staying emotionally balanced in your actions and responses.

Divorce Rules For Parents

So, what should you say and do when breaking the news of a divorce to your kids? As a Marriage and Family therapist, here are some basic suggestions for this difficult conversation.

Parents should be honest about the divorce but avoid oversharing.

Be honest and transparent

Be honest with your adult children. You don’t have to go into great detail about the reasons for the divorce if you don’t want to, but you do need to be open and transparent about the fact that it’s happening. Your kids are grown-ups now, and they can handle the truth. They may have questions or concerns, and you should be willing to listen to them and address their issues.

If your marriage has been a dumpster fire for years, don’t expect them to act surprised. If they have questions you aren’t willing to answer, tell them you are leaving that topic “off the table.”  There might be a time when you are willing to circle back after some healing has taken place and discuss topics that were too painful while divorcing.

Phone A Friend If You Need To Vent

Don’t badmouth your ex-spouse

Treat this like the 11th commandment. Do Not Bad Mouth Their Father Or Mother. Ever.

Talking negatively about your ex-spouse can be tempting, especially if you’re hurt or angry about the divorce. This is not a productive way to handle the situation, especially when it comes to your adult children. They may feel caught in the middle, and badmouthing their other parent will only make things worse. It’s essential to keep your opinions to yourself and let your kids form their own opinion of their other parent.

Asking your adult kids to help you “carry” your emotional baggage is immature. If there is information about their parent that is vital to them having a safe relationship with him/her, then share that with them. This would include physical abuse, criminal activities, and choices that could harm your children or their family.

This does not include the details of infidelity, the worst things your spouse said to you, or the excessive debt due to gambling; you get the idea. If your soon-to-be former spouse is truly a monster, it will be revealed with time.

Don’t Lose Control With Family

If you share grandchildren, you must remain in a place of respect and neutrality around your former spouse. It is frightening to children to watch adults argue and yell, no matter who is involved. Ensure you have created “off ramps” when you start heading down the highway to hell with your ex-spouse. Take a bathroom break, offer to go to the store, or declare that you have a pounding headache and must go home.

Whatever your escape plan is, make sure you behave around your grandchildren! The last thing your adult kids want during a birthday party is to referee you and your ex screaming nasty accusations at one another. You might not be invited back if you can’t behave.

Offer limited emotional support

Your adult children may feel many emotions, including sadness, anger, and confusion. They may want your emotional support more than anything else. Ensure they know you’re there for them and that you’re willing to listen to them if they want to talk. Try to validate their feelings and let them know they’re not alone.

Encourage Your Kids To Get Support

Frankly, you might not have the emotional bandwidth to help your adult kids process the divorce right now. That is normal; emotional fatigue and numbness can happen during a divorce. Suggesting someone outside the family to support your kids is not wrong. Maybe you have a long-time family friend who could listen to the kids without judgment.

Encourage your adult kids to get emotional support from someone outside the family.

Don’t get caught in the idea that you have to be the only support they need. Developing a community of supportive people outside of Mom and Dad is a critical part of growing up. Let your kids do some of their emotional processing with another safe, accepting adult.

Respect their boundaries

Your adult children are no longer kids; they have their own lives and responsibilities. You may want to lean on them for support during this time, but it’s important to respect their boundaries. They may not want to be involved in the divorce proceedings or hear all the details of what’s happening. Ask them what they’re comfortable with, and don’t push them to do anything they don’t want to do.

Again, we must stop asking our kids to help us carry our emotional burdens. Don’t isolate yourself during this difficult time; make sure you stay connected to close friends and loving family members.

Build A Support Community

Reach out to friends for support. If you find yourself feeling lonely during the divorce, make a decision to expand your interests.  Letting go of personal interests or hobbies happens frequently in long-term marriages. We fail to set aside time to focus on our individuality and often end up disconnected from our true selves.

Now is a great time to refocus on your passions and dreams. Build a strong foundation of hobbies and goals, especially in this post-divorce space. As sad as it is, your divorce has given you the gift of time for self-reflection and personal development. Don’t wait until you feel better to pursue new ideas and activities.

Seek professional help if needed

Finally, if you or your children are struggling to deal with the impact of the divorce, it may be a good idea to seek professional help. There are many therapists and counselors who specialize in helping families through the aftermath of a divorce. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you feel like you need it.

It is pretty common for adult kids to schedule some sessions with a therapist to help them process their parents’ divorce. Don’t interpret this as a sign of trouble; instead, be thankful that your children have reached out for unbiased support.

Remember, Your Kids Are Adults

It is simply not possible for you to provide all the emotional support your kids might need during this time. Don’t ask them for a blow-by-blow account of their counseling sessions; that would be intrusive. Yes, you can be sure they are talking about you and your former spouse; frankly, it is not your business. Pressuring them to share private information can cause your relationship to fracture.

You worked hard to raise responsible and respectable adults; it’s time to accept your work is done.

Things Will Get Better

Research shows that it takes about two years for life to feel like it has stabilized after a divorce. Don’t rush to prove you have healed; you will need time. Likely, you still hold onto a grab-bag of negative and positive feelings.

Somedays, you will feel sad and have low energy; give yourself compassion. There will be days when you feel hopeful and fresh – go take advantage of those feelings. There is no timeline for healing after a divorce. Your healing is as unique as you are.

Divorce is never easy, but it can be especially tough when you have adult children. Take time to explore their fears about the impact of your divorce on their lives. Be open to questions, but don’t fall into the trap of oversharing the nasty details. The more emotionally mature you are during this process, the better the long-term outcome for your family.

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Melane Ann is a writer, blogger, and life coach. In 2020, she turned her experience in midlife divorce and creating a new life for herself into midlifeismagical. With a master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Melane focuses on helping women over 50 navigate their relationships and commit to healthy aging. She and her new husband share 7 children between them. Melane jokes that she has a black belt in blended families! In addition to her writing, Melane works virtually with her coaching clients from her home office.

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