Sometimes, parents wait until their kids go to college to get divorced. And while they may think that waiting “until they are grown” will make the split easier on their kids, this is usually not the case at all.
In fact, older kids and adult children of divorce still grapple with the same issues that younger kids do: distress over the family unit as they know it, despair over family traditions that will never be the same again, and the temptation to take sides with one parent over the other.
Divorcing parents are often overwhelmed with their own emotions of fear, anger, and confusion, and as a result, may confide too much of their private lives to their grown children. Doing this puts grown children in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to support one parent emotionally while trying to sympathize with the other.
Or, perhaps, they must keep an affair secret while trying to figure out how to help the other parent who needs financial support.
Whatever the case may be, grown children of divorcing parents often find themselves caught in the middle of changing interpersonal boundaries.
To help lessen the stress divorce has on your college-aged child, avoid actions that will force him or her to take sides. Instead:
Refuse to “bad mouth” the other parent.
Make it clear that you respect your children’s right to have their own relationship with each parent. You can support them by making it clear to them and to all family members and family friends that, as far as you are concerned, your adult children have every right to refuse to participate in a “bashing their other parent” conversation.
Help your college kids understand how to create boundaries.
In this case, it is about your child’s right to have her own thoughts, feelings, and personal space. This includes her right to have her own relationship with each parent. As a parent, you can remind yourself and your adult children that both you and your divorcing spouse will always be their parents and that their feelings about those relationships are uniquely theirs.
Encourage them to talk with family members and others about the boundary agreements they want going forward. You and your divorcing spouse could support them by taking that message to your own siblings and parents and insist that they avoid pushing or encouraging your adult kids to take sides.
Help your kids decide how to respond to sensitive or intrusive questions.
Tell them that, when others ask questions or want to criticize you or their other parent, it’s ok for your adult children to say that they prefer not to discuss it. Or, if others ask your adult children about your divorce, they can thank them for asking, say that it is their parents’ business and that it is not their place to discuss it. Or they can suggest that others ask the parents directly.
If possible, have a conversation with your adult children to help them sort out what their limits are and what your family’s limits are about sharing private information. Reassure them that they are not obligated to offer any more information than they choose.
Realize that parent-adult child relationships can change following parental divorce.
And the strain of intense obligations might weaken your ties. For example, newly divorced mothers might become dependent on their adult children; or adult daughters may blame their fathers for a gray divorce. To address these changes, it is important to listen to your adult kids when they express their feelings about your divorce. The simple act of listening to them in a way that they feel heard helps them heal and will strengthen your relationship with them. To protect your relationships, do this often.
While your college-aged kids do not have a choice about whether or not you are divorcing, they do have the power to thoughtfully respond when dealing with all of the changes that come with your divorce.
Make it clear that you support their right to have a relationship with both of their parents and that no one has the right to demand otherwise. And remind your children as many times as necessary that you are still there to support and love them.