How Parents of Gray Divorce Can Help Their Adult Children
Your adult children may be hurting more than you think.
Posted March 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Adult children of gray divorce may report experiencing distress and a wide range of painful emotions.
- Parental gray divorce can create never-imagined losses for adult children.
- Parents of gray divorce can help minimize the adverse effects on their adult children and grandchildren.
This post is the first in a series about how parents of gray divorce can help their adult children.
In her book What Happened to Goodbye, novelist Sarah Dessen poignantly depicts how parental divorce affects young adults: "But in the real world, you couldn’t really just split a family down the middle, mom on one side, dad the other, with the child equally divided between. It was like when you ripped a piece of paper into two: no matter how you tried, the seams never fit exactly right again. It was what you couldn't see, those tiniest of pieces, that were lost in the severing, and their absence kept everything from being complete.”
Gray divorce, referring to a split in couples aged 50 and older, is burgeoning in the United States and abroad. The prevailing myth is that adult children aren't affected because they are adults when their parents divorce. Yet, many adult children report that the rupture of the familial bonds that ensue from their parents’ divorce shakes them to their core. Researcher Marjory Campbell explains, “Divorce is a phenomenon that is forced upon the adult children with an expectation to not only survive it without scarring but to heal the wounds of their parents, a task too great to be achieved.” Parents of gray divorce must understand and remember her words.
Of course, most parents want their children to be OK, so this too makes it easy for parents and others to believe that adult children of gray divorce will "roll with it," "get over it," and adapt to the family crisis churning in the wake of divorce. After all, they are in college or vocational training, or working, and building "their own lives." This belief makes it easy for parents to minimize or completely overlook what their adult children are experiencing during their parents' separation, divorce, and the ensuing years. For the first time in their lives, 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. How can you help your adult children and ensure they do not feel invisible?
Let’s explore the many factors that affect what adult children of gray divorce experience and report feeling, so you can avoid making your adult children’s struggles worse and help them during your family’s major life transition.
Understand That Your Adult Children Are Grieving and Be Patient With Them
Divorce brings with it many losses. Your adult children and the “younger children” inside may be in pain and grieving all that is lost. 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 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 because their parents are experiencing their life crises, replete with pain and losses.
Many adult children bemoan, “At the moment when I heard my parents were divorcing my family, my history, and my future changed forever. It feels like my family is dead.”
Grieving takes time, often a lot of time. Realize and accept this. You and your adult children are undergoing different experiences. You are divorcing your spouse, or your spouse is divorcing you. In either scenario, your adult children’s parents are divorcing. You are looking toward your future life. Or, if you are the spouse being left, you are likely swimming in your pain of loss.
At the same time, your adult children are dealing with all of the “nevers”—“I never imagined that my parents would divorce after being married for 28 years. We will never be together in the home where my siblings and I grew up. My parents will never be together at family celebrations like holidays and births or ceremonies like graduations. My parents will never be together as grandparents for our children in the home where I grew up.” There are so many nevers.
You are all grieving. Expect and accept that your adult children are likely experiencing a range of feelings different from yours. Accept that their grieving, acceptance, and healing timeline may be on a different trajectory and last an extra length of time than yours. Tell your adult children that you understand and respect their timelines for grieving the losses, accepting your divorce, and healing. Refrain from judging your adult children's feelings and the course of their timelines, just as you want them to refrain from judging yours.
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"All changes involve loss just as all losses require change." ~K.K. Goldsworthy, Australian social worker and researcher.
Copyright 2022 Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT.
Canham, S. et al. “’Til Divorce Do Us Part: Marriage Dissolution in Later Life.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 55, no. 8 (2014): 592, doi:10.1080/10502556.2014.959097.
Campbell, M. “Divorce at Mid-Life: Intergenerational Issues.” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage 23, no. 1–2 (1995): 200, doi:10.1300/J087v23n01_12.