Adult children of divorce and the challenges they experience are frequently overlooked.
Rhiannon Ford, a divorce consultant and former divorce solicitor, shares her firsthand experience of her parents’ divorce when she was in her twenties, with tips supporting yourself and your parents through the divorce process.
I was 27 years old when my parents got divorced. At the time, I was working as a divorce solicitor. I had been aware for some years that there were serious problems in my parents’ marriage; my mother had been suspicious for quite some time that my father was having an affair with someone through work. When they finally told me that they were getting divorced, it was hard. I knew it was the right thing, but it was still a huge adjustment for me. My family dynamic had been the same for the whole 27 years of my life, throughout which my parents had been a united force.
The fact that I was working as a divorce solicitor when my parents divorced, brought advantages and challenges. On the one hand I could easily help my mother, who needed the most support, with advice on how to find a good divorce solicitor, for example. But of course, the huge challenge was that I was seeing first-hand the personal impact divorce has on couples AND their families. My mother was broken. Her world had been turned upside down and she was vulnerable. As her daughter that was horrible to witness.
Many people presume that it is more difficult for young children when their parents get divorced. But the truth is, there are challenges whatever age you are. Yes, we didn’t have to navigate between two homes as part of a parenting plan, which can be very challenging for young children. But in both my personal and professional experience, it can be very painful and complicated for older children and adults, when their parents’ divorce.
Divorce and younger children
Younger children can be sheltered from the emotional upset of their parents’ separation and hopefully as much as possible are protected from the ‘fall-out’. They can be very resilient and if the situation is dealt with in the correct way, are often able to adapt very well to changes in their lives. If their parents divorced when they were very young, as young adults they may not have much memory of how life was when their parents lived in the same house. They might not know any different to how life is now.
Divorce and adult children
For adult children, divorce changes the unified family dynamic that they’ve lived in consistently for many years.
Often, when parents are struggling to cope emotionally with the breakdown of the marriage, they lean on their adult children to support them. However, although their child is an adult, it isn’t fair for them not become involved in disputes between their own parents. I advise my clients not to use their children as an emotional crutch. It is not necessary to give them a blow-by-blow account of how the marriage came to an end and/or a detailed analysis of how difficult their other parent is being during the divorce process.
How parents decide to behave during their divorce could have a significant impact on how their children may view their own relationships and marriage. As a parent it is a good idea to think about how your children may describe your divorce to someone if they were asked about it. Would you feel comfortable with the way they described how you behaved towards them and your ex?
I also advise my divorcing clients to avoid telling the children (however old), that they had been unhappy for a long time but had stayed in the marriage “for the sake of you children”. This can place huge responsibility and feelings of guilt on to your child. That was your decision to make, and your children should not be made to feel responsible for their parent/s being miserable.
Six tips for adult children of divorcing parents
How to deal with your parents’ divorce. Based on what I have learned through personal experience, here are six tips for adult children of divorcing parents:
1. Set healthy boundaries
It is important to set boundaries for yourself and to communicate them clearly to your parents. This may include asking them not to involve you in their disputes, or setting limits on how often you want to hear updates about their divorce, if at all – it can be difficult to see a parent suffering. Be very careful not to take on too much responsibility for looking after either of your parents during their divorce. There can often be a role reversal, whereby the child takes on the adult/parent role to look after their parent, which can be a difficult adjustment.
2. Make sure you get support
An unintentional consequence of your parents divorcing is that you too will be going through a challenging time in your life, and two of the people you might usually turn to for support now need support themselves. Make sure you have someone impartial that you can talk things through with. You could consider joining a support group, or seeking out a therapist who specialises in helping adult children of divorced parents.
3. Practice self-care
Your parents divorcing can be emotionally draining, so it is important to take care of yourself. Make time for activities you enjoy, and spend time with supportive family and friends, prioritize self-care practices such as exercise, meditation, or therapy.
4. Avoid becoming an emotional crutch
Is one or both of your parents using you as an emotional crutch? It is important to tell your parent that you love them very much but that perhaps you are not the best person for them to talk to about these things as you are not able to help them in this particular situation. Suggest they seek the ear of a trusted friend or hire the professional services of a divorce consultant/coach or counsellor. This will take the pressure off you, whilst knowing you have still provided them with help.
It is also a good idea to make it clear that it is not appropriate that they bad mouth your other parent to you; you are not the right person for this.
5. Stay neutral and avoid taking sides
It can be tempting to pick sides or become embroiled in your parents’ issues, but remember that it’s their relationship, not yours. Try to stay neutral and avoid taking sides or getting involved in conflicts.
As an adult, it is your choice what relationship you decide to have with each of your parents once they are no longer together. Your existing relationship does not need to change but likewise, you may find it difficult to see one/both of your parents in the same light, depending on the circumstances of the breakdown of the marriage and how they dealt with the divorce.
You may benefit from some space from one or other of them to allow yourself time to process everything.
6. Recognise and acknowledge your own feelings
It is normal to feel a range of emotions when your parents divorce, including grief, sadness, anger, confusion and even relief. Take time to acknowledge and process your emotions, whether it is through journaling, talking to friends or seeking professional counselling.
If you feel one of your parents was to blame for the divorce, take your time to rebuild your relationship with that parent and let it be on your terms. Do not rush it or be placed under pressure to spend more time with them than you feel comfortable with. When parents force their child to have a relationship with them on their terms, rather than in accordance with the child’s wishes, this can have a negative effect on the future relationship between the adult child and that parent.
How you can help your parents through divorce?
There are many ways to provide great support whilst maintaining healthy boundaries for yourself. Here are some suggestions:
- Ask them what specific help they would like (and help facilitate this)
- Offer to run errands e.g., the food shop
- Provide help around the house
- Help them find the right professional support – e.g., a divorce consultant/coach, a family law solicitor
- Check in with them regularly, to see they are okay
- Arrange to spend time with them doing “normal” activities, to distract them from thinking about the divorce all the time.
Remember, you can’t fix the situation for them. All you can do is provide healthy help and support.
Their divorce does not define your relationship with each of them.
After your parents’ divorce
As an adult child of divorced parents, you may need to navigate some challenges in the future. If your parents continue to have a strained relationship after their divorce, you will need to decide how best to approach holidays and special events. Will you invite both or take it in turns to invite each parent? There is no right or wrong way to handle this. It is your decision and will depend on your personal circumstances. Take it step by step. Try not to worry too far into the future. Things may well settle down between your parents as time moves on, meaning you may still be able to spend time with them both together, from time to time.
Your own children should also not miss out on maintaining their relationship with each of their grandparents. The relationship between grandchildren and their grandparents is precious and cannot be replaced.
By taking good care of yourself, and staying neutral, you can navigate this challenging time. You will need time and space to acknowledge and accept the changes your parents’ divorce creates in your own life now and for the future.
Rhiannon Ford is a UK-based Divorce Consultant, offering guides, phone clinics, and 1:1 work to support people through the emotional and practical aspects of divorce, whether they’re at the start, in the middle, or at the end of their divorce journey.