When a couple divorces and has minor children, much of the process deals with determining what is in the best interests of the children and creating a parenting plan that maximizes both parents’ time with the children and designates how they will share decision-making about important matters such as health, education, and religion.
Once the couple agrees on a parenting plan or has one ordered by the court, it is not uncommon at all for them to return to court in the future as issues occur with parenting and their relationship. Attorneys and the court manage parenting challenges.
If you divorce when your children are adults, it may seem as though you are free from a custody battle and that parenting is not a concern at the end of your marriage. While custody is not an issue contained in the actual divorce judgment, divorce has a tremendous impact on a parent’s relationship with their adult children.
An Ohio State University study looked at divorced mothers who were estranged from their adult children. Seventy-nine percent of the women surveyed said they were estranged from their adult children because of another family member, most often their former spouse. While you may not be able to legally get custody of your adult child in your divorce, it's clear that divorce can lead to a change in the relationship with adult children.
How Their Parents’ Divorce Impacts Adult Children
When parents divorce, an adult child feels the impact in a variety of ways:
- Doubting their own ability to form healthy relationships. When their parents divorce, adult children may wonder if they themselves have the ability to create and maintain a healthy relationship. This can impact children who are single (and become convinced they should never marry), children in relationships (who may believe they should never actually formalize their relationship into a marriage), or children who are married (who may question if issues in their own marriage will lead to a divorce).
- Questioning their own memories and experiences. The adult child may have happy family memories and begin to wonder if they were actually true or misconstrued. Their entire childhood may start to feel like a lie or an elaborate ruse, and they may wonder about their own perceptional abilities, and the honesty of their parents.
- Being placed in the middle. No matter how much or how little is shared with them by the parents, adult children may feel they are caught in the middle, between the two sides. They may not want to take a side, or they may fall in line with one parent’s stance. Regardless of where they end up, the conflict can be stressful.
- Role reversals. While they are used to turning to their parents for support and advice, adult children of divorce may find that their parents are suddenly coming to them asking for help. Suddenly taking on an advisory role can be a difficult shift and one that can change the parent-child relationship forever.
- Responsibility for shared time. When a divorce happens and there are minor children, it is up to the court and the parents to set the shared parenting schedule. When the children are adults, however, the responsibility for splitting their time rests on them alone. They have to decide when they want to see their parents and how they will make the holidays work. Parents and children have to negotiate with each other. This places a heavy emotional burden on the child and sets them up to take much of the blame when things are challenging in the years after the divorce.
Helping Adult Children Cope with Their Parents’ Divorce
There’s no question that divorce can present challenges for both parents and children. To ensure that you and your children maintain a healthy relationship after the divorce, keep the following recommendations in mind:
- Honor the loss. Remember that the divorce is a loss for your child and you. Everyone experiences their own pain about this, in their own way, and there is no right or wrong way to go through it.
- Maintain the parent-child boundary. Don’t share all the details about the divorce with your adult child. They should not be your confidante through the process.
- Don’t ask them to take sides. Your children will walk a very fine line trying to maintain relationships with both you and your ex-spouse. Acknowledge that you want them to continue their relationship with the other parent and don’t expect them to rally to your position.
- Don’t expect them to understand. They have a different image of their other parent and may never truly understand why the marriage ended, and that’s ok.
- Reassure them that the past was real. If your children are questioning their entire childhood and family dynamics because of the divorce, help them understand that their memories are real and their emotions about those times are valid.
- Be flexible about holidays. Your children will likely want to see the other parent on some holidays, and they may also have in-laws they need to factor in as well. Make your own plans for holidays when you will not be with them, and try not to use guilt as a weapon.
- Work out a neutral relationship with your former spouse. Although your children are grown, you may have grandchildren (or may hope to have them in the future). There will be large family events you want to participate in. Finding a way to be civil with your former spouse will allow the entire family to have those big celebrations.
Divorce with adult children requires careful communication and thoughtful approaches to family dynamics. With some adjustments, everyone in the family can move forward together.