How Parents of Gray Divorce Can Help Their Adult Children
By Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg

Gray divorce is burgeoning in the United States and abroad. The prevailing myth is that because Adult Children are adults when their parents divorce, they won’t be affected. Yet, many Adult Children report that the rupture of the familial bonds that ensue from their parents’ divorce shakes them to their core.

 Of course, most parents want their children to be ok, so this too makes it easy for parents and others to believe that, since Adult Children of gray divorce are in college, or vocational training, or already working, and building “their own lives,” they will simply “roll with it,” “get over it,” and adapt to the family crisis churning in the wake of divorce. This belief makes it easy for parents to minimize or completely overlook what their Adult Children are feeling during their parents’ separation, divorce, and the ensuing years when for the first time in their lives, their Adult Children are experiencing their parents not as the accustomed parental unit, but as single parents. Often Adult Children want to avoid hurting their parents’ feelings and complicating their parents’ situations, so they refrain from saying what they are feeling. Unaware that their feelings are valid, they often suffer in silence, internalizing their pain, and feeling isolated. They become the invisible children of gray divorce. So, what can you do to help your Adult Children and ensure that they do not feel invisible?

1. Understand that Your Adult Child Is Grieving and Be Patient with Her

Divorce brings with it many losses. The losses for your Adult Children are many – the loss of the constancy and continuity of their nuclear family; their parents’ love; their intact extended family and support systems of family friends and community; decades-long family togetherness and family memories; their own identity that grew from their formative years when their family was together; their dreams about future family celebrations, traditions, and rituals, such as graduations, weddings, and births; their family home that was the family’s nest, a place to bring their own children, if they have children, to share where they grew up; and, their parents united as grandparents.

Younger Adult Children often lose financial support from their parents. Both younger and older Adult Children may lose emotional support from their parents, when their parents become less available to them because their parents are experiencing their own life crises, replete with pain and losses.

Grieving takes time, often a lot of time. Realize and accept this.

2. Avoid Conflict and Be Amicable with Your Adult Child’s Other Parent

In the United States and many other countries, the default divorce process is litigation, which is an adversarial process. It is a win-lose process. Research has found that interparental conflict is associated with feeling caught between parents in young adults aged 19-37 and indicates that these feelings are linked with weak parent-child relationships and well-being irrespective of children’s ages. If you choose a family-focused, out of court divorce process like mediation or collaborative divorce, you have the opportunity to minimize the emotional and financial costs that so often accompany litigated divorces.

You and your Adult Child’s other parent will always be co-parents, with the emphasis on “co-.” Is your co-parenting relationship a positive one or a negative one? Some Adult Children of gray divorce say that their parents have no relationship. It is not possible for parents to have no relationship because they are always the parents. What they mean is that their parents have a negative co-parenting relationship. How would it benefit these Adult Children if their co-parents were able to create win-win solutions for themselves that would also benefit their Adult Children and extended family members?

3. Respect the Generational Boundary Lines

Honor the parent-Adult Child relationship and know that your Adult Child may need you to say that you understand that you are still the parent and that your Adult Child is not your friend, your confidant, your therapist, your dating buddy, or your surrogate spouse. Maintain a firm boundary in this parent-child relationship, even if your Adult Child doesn’t. Sometimes Adult Children feel guilty and think that they should be their parent’s confidant, help-mate, or dating buddy. It may feel good to be close to your Adult Child in this way and to think that your Adult Child understands you. Nevertheless, resist allowing your Adult Child to slide into this role reversal.

Be aware and acknowledge that sometimes the other parent may need more help from your Adult Child than you do. Be accepting of this and avoid feeling jealous about their relationship. If you complain to your Adult Child that he is spending more time with his other parent than with you, you can cause your Adult Child to feel guilty about the time he is spending with his other parent. When people feel guilty, they often avoid the person who is guilt-tripping them. So, you can actually create a reaction that is the opposite of the one you want.

Adult Children report that, even if they think that they should be helping their parent, they feel caught in the middle between their parents when one parent rants about their other parent or shares the details about what went awry in their marriage, their sex life, their finances, and the legalities of their divorce process. Avoid discussing these topics with your Adult Child because it assumes a peer relationship and can cause your Adult Child to feel unease and additional loss -- the loss of you as the parent. When this occurs, your Adult Child can become overwhelmed by conflicting feelings and begin to wonder, “Was everything about our family unreal, a fantasy, like a movie set that is just a façade?” He may react with anger toward you or withdraw from you.         

4. Understand How Dating, Re-partnering, or Remarrying Can Affect Your Adult Child.

Avoid making your parent-Adult Child relationship contingent upon the Adult Child accepting your new significant other. And avoid insisting that your new partner be involved in all activities with your Adult Child. Many Adult Children report that their parents never talk about their previous family lives together. Assure your Adult Child that you want to spend one-on-one time with him, and you be the one to reach out to him to schedule the one-on-one time.  Reminisce about fond memories, so that he knows that you value the family that you had together and that you have not erased his entire family history with you and his other parent. If he is married, schedule time for just the three of you to be together. If he has children, schedule time for only his family and you to spend time together. You will always be the parent. Attempt to understand what he is experiencing.

If your significant other resists such time without her being present, seek professional help for understanding and guidance about “blended family” issues. A blended family is one where at least one parent has children that are not genetically related to the other spouse or partner. It often takes a long time for the new significant other to become integrated into the relationship with your Adult Children. Be patient.

5. Make Your Adult Children’s Celebratory Events About Them, Not About You

Often divorcing or divorced parents who are still hurt and angry with each other ruin these celebrations for the Adult Children. Even if your separation and divorce was rancorous, remember that you once fell in love and created a family together. That family still exists, even though you are divorced. Rather than allowing tension, resentment, and anger to harden like drying cement and become the landscape of your family, set a goal to eventually attend some of the family celebrations such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, and grandchildren’s performances. Dance together at your Adult Children’s weddings. Sit with the other family members, so that your Adult Children can still feel a sense of family. Giving your family such a gift can go a long way toward healing.

Adapted from HOME WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN by Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg with permission of Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright © 2020 by Carol R. Hughes and Bruce R. Fredenburg.


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