When we think of divorce and children, we typically think of children under the age of 18, relying on parents for the basics, for guidance, for emotional support, and everything else that makes the parent-child bond so crucial.
But as I was reminded in a recent case I was involved in, divorce can have profound emotional effects on adult children of older divorcing parents.
There are some obvious differences between how children and adult children are affected, of course. For children under 18, there’s uncertainty about the immediate future, a profound change as children will have to navigate between “mom’s house” and “dad’s house,” and the unhappy outcome of divorce has likely been prefaced by tensions that the children have witnessed between the parents.
By contrast, adult children have likely moved out to their own residences, set courses which might have them creating their own families, and they may not be witness to the tensions that pulled their parents apart.
But that can be a critical element in the shock that adult children feel when their parents are divorcing. They can think that their parents are getting along just fine, and then announce they’re divorcing. That creates a paradigm shift for the adult children; it might take them months or even years to adjust to the new reality that divorce presents.
Children under 18 in divorces (who must still live with each parent under most parenting plan arrangements) are encouraged not to lay blame with one particular parent, and not to choose sides. But the same incentive doesn’t exist for adult children – they might choose sides based on which parent they identify with most, or based on observations they might have made about the marriage in childhood.
If the divorce goes to court, it’s even possible that the children would be called on to testify, and that, as well as the resulting outcome of that court battle, could be enough to tear a whole family apart.
If you have adult children and you’re looking to divorce, I can’t stress enough the importance of talking with your spouse about emotionally preparing the children together. All divorces are different – some can take several months, while others might take a number of years – but all divorces affect the children of the divorcing parents, no matter how long they’ve been out of the house. Just because a divorce is ‘seemingly’ less disruptive in an adult child’s life doesn’t mean it’s less emotional. Keeping that in mind could make the divorce easier, less painful, and facilitate healing the breach in a family in the long run.