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How Can Parents of Gray Divorce Help Their Adult Children?

It may surprise you how your adult children feel about your dating.

Key points

  • Parental dating can stress the parent-child relationship.
  • Some adult children aren't able to adjust and accept that their parent is dating right away.
  • Listen to understand your adult child’s feelings and experiences, which may include withdrawal, anger, and grief.
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Adult child who is angry at father who is dating and doesn't understand her feelings.
Source: Shevets Production/Pexels

This post is the fifth in a series about how parents of gray divorce can help their adult children.

A friend of my client Antoinette (all names changed), referred her to me. He knew about my work with adult children whose parents 50 years and older were divorcing, a phenomenon called gray divorce. Antoinette was a 24-year-old high school teacher who looked older than her years. A bun of chestnut hair clung to the back of her head, and wire-rimmed glasses rested on her nose. She sat statue-still in the far corner of the loveseat across from me as the minutes ticked away. She stared intensely at a tissue in her hands while her fingers folded and unfolded it over and over, this way and that, as if it were a puzzle that would reveal the answer she was seeking if only she could find the right combinations of folds. Tears slowly spilled from her eyes.

Suddenly her face reddened, and her teeth clenched so tightly that her jawbone muscles bulged, threatening to erupt through her skin. She spewed, “When I saw Dad was dating, I screamed at him, ‘Why don’t you act your age! I see you looking at yourself in the mirror, checking out your body, clothes, teeth, and hairline! You’ve even dyed your hair! You are 55 years old and acting like a giddy teenager! You should not wear clothes that a guy I am dating would wear! You are embarrassing yourself and me!" She had angrily lashed out at him for not being parent-like. She saw a giddy teenager, and the pain of losing her father torpedoed into anger. For some people, anger is one of the early stages of grief.

Gauge the impact of your actions by paying attention to the child part of your adult child.

Although your adult child is in an adult body, a “younger child” is inside her adult body. She may be in pain and grieving all she has lost. If you are dating, the child part may have strong, uncomfortable feelings about you dating.

Avoid expecting your adult child to adjust and accept your dating immediately. She will likely need time to adjust, just as a younger child would. You and her other parent have been a parental unit for her entire life, so it may be difficult to see you with someone new. All the years your family was together envelope your adult child's formative years and define her identify. It often takes time for adult children to adjust to seeing their parents separate from their past lives together as a family.

Listen to understand your adult child’s feelings and experiences.

Understand that to avoid conflicting feelings, an adult child may withdraw and ignore you if you are dating. Or he may channel anger at you or your new significant other.

Twenty-year-old Samuel repeatedly told his mother, who was the one who filed for divorce, “It’s your life. Do whatever you want. You already have anyhow. Go ahead and be happy, as you say you deserve to be. And stop telling me I should be happy for you. I don’t want any part of your dating, and I don't want to hear about it. Just pretend I don’t exist, which you already do anyway. I'm done with you telling me I should be happy for you. You act like I am not supposed to have any feelings about you selfishly destroying our family! I'll pretend like you don't exist too!”

Such anger and withdrawal can arise from his frustration that it seems you have discarded him and your past family life together while he is still mourning the losses. Understand that he is grieving the loss of his intact family, the family home, and a place to bring his children one day and share the nest where he grew up.

Eliminate shoulds: “You should be happy for me…You shouldn’t be sad. You shouldn’t be angry.” Feelings simply are. Your adult children may not be as happy as you are about your new life. You are focusing your energy on moving away from your past life with your adult child's other parent and toward your future. Your adult child is looking backward at what she is losing from her past and what will always be her past, not her future. She is losing her family history, her family being together, and the future she thought she and her family would have. Expecting your adult child to be as happy for you in your new life discounts her feelings and her journey on grief’s path.

If your relationship with your adult child is fractured, be the one to reach out to her and ask her to go to counseling with you to improve your communication, heal, and restore your relationship. You are still her parent. It is not your child’s role to initiate this, though some children do. Your role as the parent is to be the role model for change and healing.

ⓒ Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT, 2022

Adapted from Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce.