Amid the chaos of divorce, parents find themselves overwhelmed with worries that reflect all aspects of their life- financial, practical and emotional. For most parents, the number one concern is the welfare of their children.

Oddly enough, parents may not be as sensitive to the impact of the divorce on their adult children as they are to the impact on their younger children. Many unhappy couples wait for their kids to be on their own before moving ahead with the dissolution of the marriage assuming that the older the child, the less the impact. While it is true, kids not living at home hear less of the day to day fighting, bickering and crying, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling as well.

With younger children, parents often go out of their way to, as much as possible, protect their kids from conflict. With adult children, it may be just the opposite. Parents experiencing divorce often seek out their adult children for counsel and support. Of all the blogs I have written in the last four years, the one that continues to get the most traffic is, Divorce in Midlife: What your Adult Children Won’t Tell You (but really want you to know).

Frequently older children are made privy to information they really shouldn’t/don’t want to have- dad’s affair with his secretary or mom’s refusal to have sex. Parents who tend to see their adult children as “friends” and confide in and rely on them for support, friendship, allegiance. They often minimize their children’s need comfort and support as they face their parents divorce. Generational boundaries are disregarded and smashed without regard for how adult children will feel about this information. The adult child called upon to be a confidante may, at first, feel valued by the parent’s reliance and feel grateful for the opportunity to give back to their parent. Some even align so firmly with one parent that they “divorce” the other parent. However, as time moves on, this reversal in roles becomes increasingly difficult for the adult child to maintain. If the parent does not move on and make new adult connections, their reliance on the adult child for both emotional and practical support as well as for socializing, companionship and care giving solidifies. Now, the adult child, once flattered by this role, feels increasingly pressured and trapped.

This “new normal” can create difficulties for the adult child in their own life-with their own spouse, children, career, as well as with other family members and even friendships. The strain of emotionally “holding up” a distraught parent becomes increasingly challenging and uncomfortable.  Locked in the role of dealing with the emotionally needy parent, the adult child finds themselves grieving not only their parent’s divorce, but also for the loss of parental support.

This role reversal saddens and angers many adult children. I have heard many stories of adult children struggling in this situation- the father who calls in the middle of the night sobbing or the mother who insists she be her single son’s date to a New Year’s Eve party. Then there is the son who wants to postpone his wedding because he doesn’t want to “hurt” his father or the very pregnant daughter who finds herself accompanying her mother to divorce court. These adult children long to abdicate this new role, but are at a loss as to how to extricate themselves from this dynamic.

Setting clear boundaries with someone we love is never easy-especially if we are concerned that we may lose the relationship or worry they are “too fragile”. For adult children in this position it helps to find a qualified therapist to help you sort out your own feelings about your parents’ divorce and to support your journey to reestablish appropriate boundaries with your parents.

It is important for parents to remember that while adult children may be “on their own”, divorce in the family impacts everyone. The adult child is experiencing the loss of their family unit and also needs support and care. How parents behave though the divorce and in the years following can have a huge effect on diminishing the negative impact on their children. Parents need to be mindful that their children can only offer limited support and guidance. Furthermore, parents need to respect generationally appropriate boundaries.  It is critical to remember that when they switch roles, they abandon their children’s need for the sake of their own.


© 2013 Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Farmington, CT since 1986.She is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback.

One Comment

  1. cj golden on the 24. Feb, 2013 remarked #

    I think that the parent in this situation forgets that his/her adult child is still her child: not a friend or psychologist.

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