Adult Children after Divorce: Understanding Their Reactions

You would think that dealing with adult children after divorce would be easier than helping younger children understand everything. Unfortunately, this isn't always true.

By Womans Divorce Staff

A lot of attention is given to how divorce affects younger children, yet the impact on adult children is just as significant. From the shattering of family stability to the transformation of personal relationships, divorce introduces a range of complex emotions in adult children. Here are some ways in which divorce can affect adult children when their parents divorce later in life:

  1. Emotional and psychological distress: Adult children may experience a range of emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, and anxiety as a result of their parents' divorce. The sense of loss can linger long after the legal proceedings are over, even if they understand that the divorce was necessary. Their perception of family stability and security may be shaken, leading to feelings of insecurity and emotional distress. 

  2. Changes in family dynamics: Divorce often brings significant changes in family dynamics. Many grown children find themselves caught in the middle, dealing with divided loyalties and conflicts between their parents. The family gatherings and traditions they once knew may be disrupted or lost entirely. Adjusting to their parent’s new living arrangements, stepfamilies, or single-parent households can also be challenging. 

  3. Financial implications: Divorce can have financial consequences that affect adult children. They may witness a decline in their family's standard of living or experience the burden of financial strain. For college-age children, their parents may not be able to provide as much financial support after the divorce. And adult children may need to take on additional responsibilities or provide support to one or both parents, impacting their own financial stability. 

  4. Relationship strain: Divorce can strain the relationships between adult children and their parents. Conflicts may arise as a result of divided loyalties, parental disagreements, or issues related to property settlements. Communication and trust may be affected, making it challenging to maintain healthy relationships with both parents. 

  5. Personal relationships and commitment: Adult children of divorce may be more cautious or hesitant about committing to long-term relationships themselves. They may have concerns about experiencing similar relationship difficulties and fear the potential pain and disruption that divorce can bring. This can impact their ability to form and maintain intimate relationships. 

  6. Personal growth and resilience: While divorce can be challenging, it can also foster personal growth and resilience in adult children. Going through such a significant life event can encourage self-reflection, personal development, and the acquisition of coping skills. Some adult children may develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their values, leading to personal growth and positive outcomes.

How adult children are impacted by their parent's divorce varies widely depending on their individual circumstances, family dynamics, and available support systems. Some adult children may adapt well to their parents' divorce and find ways to thrive despite the challenges. For those who are struggling after their parent's divorce, counseling or support groups can help them cope and work through their emotions.

Questions about Adult Children After Divorce

If you are wondering how to handle issues with your adult children after divorce, the following FAQs offer tips on how to proceed.

Answers by Brette Sember, J.D. and Gloria Swardenski, Life Coach 

My grown children have shut me out because I want a divorce.

Ann's Situation: We've been married for 35 years; the last 6 have been unhappy and unfulfilling. I recently had an affair and have asked for a divorce. Our 3 sons are now adults and are taking their father's side in this divorce. They won't even give me the opportunity to explain why I left. I don't want to lose them, but I don't see that giving up my new love and going back will fix anything. What should I do about my kids?

Brette's Answer: It is not uncommon for grown children to be upset by a divorce and to blame one parent. I think that all you can do is live your life for yourself and have patience that your children will understand. You could suggest that they go to counseling with you - that might be a way that everyone could express themselves in a productive way. Good luck.

My son thinks that the settlement was unfair.

Pat's Question: I have been divorced for 9 years. What do I say to a 32 year old son who demands that I apologize to my ex and return the money I received in my divorce settlement to his father? At first he said he would not talk to me, and now he's added his wife and children (my 2 grandsons). I am so angry that his father has continued to bad-mouth me for so many years to our 3 adult children. Two of them work for him, and I am guessing they are having financial problems. I am happily remarried and thank god I live in another state. What can I do?

Gloria Answers: Congratulations on your successful remarriage and your new beginning! I'm so glad that you aren't losing sight of all that you are blessed with now while you still work to resolve some of the issues from your past.

In dealing with family issues like this, a central question is this: What do you have control over and what don't you have control over? You have control over how you think, your overall attitude, and your actions. The rest is completely up to the other members of your family.

So, with that in mind, let's explore your options that you have control over. Since your son is now an adult with a family of his own, you may consider having an adult conversation with him to explain more about your side of the story. You can write this out in a letter, call him, or make a special trip. Again, how you do it is completely up to you.

And then once you share your heart with you son, I'd encourage you to let him know that the topic is no longer up for discussion. You've made your decision and you aren't changing your mind. This was an agreement that was made between you and his Dad and he, your son, has no input.

From there, explore what you would like your relationship to look like from that day on. I'm guessing you would like to have a solid, healthy, and supportive relationship with them and your grandchildren so don't be afraid to ask for that. What he does with the information and your request is completely up to him then. It's a risk, but one well worth taking for both of you!

My husband's daughter doesn't want me at her wedding.

Jeanette's Dilemma: My husband and I have been together for 8 years. I don't have any children, but husband has a daughter. From the start, the daughter has not shown any respect for our relationship. Now she is in a gay relationship and is "getting married". She wants her father to attend and give her away, but without me. I don't want him to go and feel quite betrayed that he is going to go. What do you think?

Gloria's Answer: Children from past relationships are always a tricky issue. Some of the times the children accept the new relationship - that's what we all hope for. But sometimes things just don't click and we have to deal with that, too.

What I see is that while she has never "respected" your relationship with your husband, you are also not respecting the relationship she has with her father. You may not agree with her gay lifestyle or her "getting married", but the relationship between father and daughter still stands.

I would encourage you to find it within yourself to not try and come between that relationship. It will only cause you heartache every time. And in reality, you are putting your husband in an impossible situation by asking him to choose. Stop asking, accept her as she is, and maybe in time she will do the same for you.

We're tired of switching our schedule because of our step mom.

Krystal's Question: My parents divorced 4 years ago. My father and his new wife make every family get together and holiday difficult. His wife has an odd work schedule and my Dad thinks everyone should change their plans to accommodate her. This year my sister and I decided that we are not going to change our schedule (which works for everyone else in his family, except for her) to accommodate one person. Is this wrong?

Gloria's Answer: Being a child, even an adult child, of divorced parents is never easy. You have to make hard decisions about who you are going to see on which holiday. You have to welcome in new step-parents in which you have very little say in the matter. And you have to sometimes make room in your life, heart, and holiday for that new person.

I want you to think for a minute about your Dad. Your Dad married this woman because he loves her. He wants her to feel loved, honored, and welcomed into his family. It doesn't mean that he is choosing her over you, but you have to remember that he lives with this woman every day of his life now. Would you not want your husband to make these same concessions for you? Would you not want your husband to make sure you were included in the holiday celebrations?

I have a lot of respect for your Dad. He is trying to make it work for all of you, and I can assure you that it isn't easy. Make the decision this holiday that you need to make regarding the time you take off to visit. But try to see it in a new way, and don't make it about you. It's not to accommodate just one person - it's about loving his wife. I hope you have the joy of having someone like that in your life!

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