Out of the Nest but Always Your Child—How the parents’ divorce affects adult children

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When we think about the impact divorce has on children, we tend to consider the particular concerns for young kids or how adolescents will cope.

What’s often overlooked is how divorce affects adult children. Older couples who decide to end their marriage may assume that because the kids are moving on with their own lives now—college, career, relationships, marriage, family—their parents’ divorce doesn’t affect them much or isn’t their problem.

But the truth is that adult children are impacted when their parents split—in ways that are different from younger children and some that are similar. While there won’t be a custody battle, your grown kids are more than just peripheral to your split; it can be a significant, profound, and complex change for them.

It’s also true that more and more adult children are facing this issue. While the overall divorce rate has been in decline for the last two decades, the incidence of so-called gray divorce (splits among couples age 50+) has increased substantially—nearly doubling since 1990, according to a report by Bowling Green State University. This year, a study by the AARP revealed “Divorce Skyrocketing Among Aging Boomers….The most significant increase in divorce rates was among people 65 and older: The rate tripled from 1990 to 2021.” Today, in the U.S., one-quarter of all divorces are later-in-life dissolutions.

What divorcing parents of adult children need to know

Practical Impact:

The kids may be grown and flown, but your divorce can still have significant practical and financial ramifications for your children, which may feel stressful and disconcerting for them.

For example, a child who is 18+ may be in college and is still financially dependent. Perhaps you’re helping pay for their education, or have taken on student loans on their behalf, or you’re contributing to their rent. Depending on the terms of your settlement and post-divorce financial pressures, the split may affect your ability to continue that support. It may change how they pay for school (new financial aid forms and red tape can feel overwhelming) or whether they can launch a new career now.

Adult children may worry about how they’ll help you out as you age without your spouse. Will they have additional physical or financial responsibility for your eventual care? Will one parent have more significant needs than the other? Should they offer to have one of you move in with them?

Emotional Impact:

Even for an adult better equipped to understand adult problems than a young child, it can be excruciating to realize that the family structure they knew will never be the same. Holidays, traditions, and special occasions like birthdays and weddings will be different now.

Your grown-up kid may be saying goodbye to their childhood home, symbolizing family life, which they assumed would always be there.

They may feel that their treasured memories and sense of family identity are called into question, that there’s a shadow of doubt over everything they thought was true. They may wonder if it wasn’t genuine or if it wasn’t what they understood it to be.

Your divorce may feel sudden and shocking to your children. If they learn it was “a long time coming” or “had been brewing,” or if you separate quickly after the empty nest, they may worry that they’re somehow to blame for your unhappiness or that you only endured marital misery for their sake.

For a young person who is launching into the adult world of relationships, love, romance, partnership, and family, their parents’ divorce can feel destabilizing, like a blow to their confidence and ability to trust, to believe in marriage and lasting love.

They may feel pressure to take sides or find it hard not to blame someone. They may have difficulty accepting a new partner when one of you finds love again.

They may worry about how this will change their children’s grandparent dynamic.

While these feelings are common and valid, knowing their reaction doesn’t have to impact your decision or process.

Here are some ways divorcing parents can support their adult children through this tough time:

Communicate. Let your child know that you’re available to talk and that you understand how the divorce affects them. Be proactive about discussing the impact and logistics, as well as how you’ll handle holidays, traditions, and so forth in the future.

Honor their feelings. Your child may experience loss, grief, anger, sorrow, confusion, and more. Acknowledge that this is hard. Feeling heard is part of healing. Encourage your children to express their feelings, talk about them, and find healthy emotional outlets. Also, give them space to process as needed.

Respect boundaries. Even if your mature child is a close friend, they’re not your therapist. Don’t confide in them about the specifics of your divorce.

Take the high road. Don’t badmouth your ex, place blame, or vent about your marital problems to your children.

Let them stay neutral. Assure your child that they don’t have to take sides or choose between parents.

Help them help themselves. Tactfully suggest they talk to a counselor or therapist; encourage them to practice self-care.

The skilled and caring attorneys at SFLG work with families at every stage and are experienced in the specific dynamics of gray divorce. We are here to help you navigate your dissolution so you can focus on your family.

By Debra Schoenberg


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