by Danielle Palmer, licensed professional counselor in Ohio (LPC) and Kentucky (LPCA)
A significant amount of time and energy has been devoted to understanding the effects of divorce on children and how to handle this change in the healthiest way possible to reduce those effects. Much of this research and devotion relates to how young(er) children are affected. While the impact that a divorce can have on this demographic is indisputable, older/adult children are still at risk of being affected and potentially in ways we don’t see as often in younger years.
If divorce occurs during later years of a marriage, the “children,” while still maintaining that title, may be of older years as well. I want to discuss some topic areas I have come across in my work and have found beneficial in addressing in all aspects of the family.
Difference in Innocence: This area is not to say that young children are completely unaware of the changes their family is about to go through- in fact, many young children are very aware when there begins to be trouble in the household. The “innocence” in this subject area is more to do with how the parents typically react to young children versus adult children. Parents often know divorce will be difficult for their young children. It is more common for parents to handle their young children with fragile-care during this time, attempting to not create too many changes too quickly, while being aware of how the things they say to their children can affect them.
When not worrying about their child’s fragility or “innocence,” I’ve noticed some parents react differently to their adult children. They may assume their children won’t be affected all that much, so they react with less caution, speak of the other parent with less tact, and forget to consider the struggles their adult children may be facing because of the changes. While adults may not have the same thoughts or concerns as a younger version of themselves would have, many still have thoughts and feelings they struggle with and need to process through their parents’ divorce. Recognizing this from both the perspective of the child and the parent is important.
Establishing Boundaries: As mentioned above, parents may forget to be sensitive to the challenges a divorce can put their adult children through. Not only do children of divorce typically experience many grief-related symptoms to this loss, but if parents struggle with their awareness of how it affects any-aged children, it can make their experience much worse. For adult children, they may find themselves feeling stuck between two parents. Since they are older, parents may feel as though they can rely on their children for support. This doesn’t have to be negative, but when support, for instance, is answering phone calls from parents talking negatively about the other, it can put the adult child in an uncomfortable situation. To further this example, the adult child may feel like even listening to the parent talk poorly about the other is indirectly “choosing a side.” Parents of younger children don’t often lean on them for emotional support, but with adult children parents may blur the lines. Creating boundaries is healthy and a proactive step to prevent this issue or get it back under control.
Remembering to Grieve: Because adult children of divorce often spend much of their time caring for one or both of their parents’ emotions (and potentially even other family members’), they can forget to take care of their own. It is incredibly important for the adult children to remember to take care of their own pain and heartache that may come from their parents separating. Grief does not just relate to the death of a loved one- it is about loss. We can experience grief-related symptoms due to many different forms of loss, divorce being one of them. The adult child in this situation may be feeling a loss to the many years of family traditions they have gained over time. Throughout the years, events, holidays, birthdays, and many other occasions may have become established and experienced time and time again- losing pieces of this could be difficult. Remembering to grieve and even appreciate these memories and feelings is a normal, healthy part of processing all the change.
Sibling Support: Adults with siblings, especially if they would consider their relationship close, may be able to help one another through parental divorce. Their sibling(s), unlike many other people, can understand their situation from the same perspective: the child. This doesn’t mean they will share the same opinions but having someone in your corner who understands how you may be feeling can be incredibly helpful. There are a few cases, however, that sibling support may not be as helpful as one would hope. The more obvious example is if siblings do not get along well with one another or they have an estranged relationship. Not having the closeness to one another may prevent the opportunity for support.
The other factor that we often don’t realize until it is experienced is that there are many ways for people to cope with grief. Just because siblings are sharing in the same loss doesn’t mean they will react to that loss in the same way. For example, some people will remain in a denial stage of grief longer than others, one may experience more or different levels of anger than another sibling, or one may process their feelings in a completely different way from their sibling. Therefore, while leaning on a sibling can be incredibly helpful during this time, it is important to understand the limitations to their help and when it would be best to seek support from someone else.
Grieving losses, creating healthy boundaries, and establishing “new normals” is crucial for the growth and development through a challenging time. Being aware of what can make the situation worse and how adult children can be affected will hopefully help parents and their children understand how to tackle the divorce and all of the changes that come with it in the most effective, healthy way possible. If you have found yourself on either side of this situation (whether you be a parent attempting to navigate this new normal or the adult child trying to figure out how to handle this) and would like to discuss the effects, challenges, or emotions, I would be happy to set up a session with you. Feel free to schedule an appointment online at https://www.findyourbreakthrough.com/ or by calling 812.655.3058.