Children: Collateral Damage to Adult Children Of Divorced Parents

Recently, I saw Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin’s new movie, “It’s Complicated.”  Most of the time, I  was laughing uncontrollably.  I can’t even remember when I last laughed that hard. The hilarity stopped abruptly when, near the end, I saw the looks on their adult children’s faces. Each one a kaleidoscope of bewilderment, pain, and grief. The rawness and purity of their inner conflict was so affecting my heart stood still.

We all know how momentous a divorce is for children who are still living at home, but it is also devastating to adult children, even if they are hundreds of miles away. Parents are distracted during a divorce, and often assume adult children are fine. Unfortunately. that is rarely the case. Because they look and act like adults, unless a parent probes, they will miss the emotional detritus the divorce left behind. Minimizing collateral damage done to adult offspring, happens almost automatically, as parents have other fish to fry. They may be dating, remarried, or alone and coping. Whatever their situation, the parents are adjusting to major life changes, and preoccupied.

Young adults are especially good at acting as if they are more mature than they really are, which keeps parents oblivious. If the kids live away from home, it is even easier for parents to be unaware of the devastation their offspring might feel. To complicate matters more, young adults may not acknowledge the extent of their grief to themselves, as they may be afraid it will overwhelm them. Asking doesn’t always help, since the newly independent child wants to see him or herself as capable of coping, and may not want to burden the grieving parent. Moreover, if they had been emotionally unavailable to support a grieving parent during the divorce, they may think they can’t ask for help they didn’t provide. If the parent has moved on to a new relationship the adult child may feel it is inappropriate to bring up the past. Take heart, if there was a history of open communication before the divorce it will resume. If there wasn’t, what better time to start a new chapter?

Therapists speculate that, depending on the length of the marriage, it can take from 2-7 years to feel like yourself again. That is 2-7 years after the ink has dried. During that time, you are on a trajectory of healing that moves you forward into balance and wholeness.  It is a good idea to keep these numbers in mind when helping your adult children, as it sets more realistic goals for them, too. (See: Responses To: Get Over It Already.)

Whether re-coupled or alone, post-divorce parents are distracted and can inadvertently ignore their adult children’s needs.  Think of it as emotional triage: the most obvious, life-threatening issues need attention first.  Once the dust settles, the children can get more attention. This is quite different from divorcing with younger kids at home, since their daily presence makes it obvious how they are processing every nuance of their evolving life, including adjusting to their parents’ new relationship. (See: Post-Divorce, Relating To Adult Children.)

Judith Wallerstein, the Grande Dame of divorce research for the past four decades, always maintained that, if handled well, divorce wouldn’t have lasting negative effects on children. A few years ago, she recanted. After reading through 25 years of data she found long-term negative results from divorce, even when the children were adults at the time of the split.  You could argue that many life experiences have emotional residuals. We all know how being bullied, taunted, or demeaned has far reaching psychological effects.  Every experience shapes you and your world view, so why wouldn’t divorce?  It almost seems absurd at worst, and naive at best, to have thought it wouldn’t leave a life-altering impression.

Many divorcing parents cite the negative effects of not divorcing to support their difficult choice to split, especially in the case of obvious physical, verbal, or emotional abuse; and, they make a good point. The truth is: no one except your family knows what it was like living in your household. Therefore, no one can really judge what was the best decision. Once the divorce die is cast no one can reliably compare those results with speculation of what might have been. Therefore, applying the research data to your situation is sketchy, at best; and, can’t predict how your children, whatever their ages at the time of divorce, will react. Regular communication, and an open heart are your best strategies.

The family, whether acknowledged, or not, is in a vortex of change. Allow time for things to calm down. Eventually, they will. Let each family member adjust at their own speed. None of you has had this experience before (even if there had been a previous divorce and blended family, this one is unique), so be as understanding and patient as possible.

When you became a parent, you assumed the job of protecting your children. Shielding them from harm when they were under your roof was fairly obvious. This is different, as your actions have thrown their lives into some measure of chaos. Feeling guilty almost seems like a knee-jerk reflex, but it doesn’t have to be. Giving in to guilt will morph into resentment for your children, as every time you see or talk with them you will be reminded of how your actions have hurt them. Ditch the guilt, and you will have plenty of psychic energy to help. Maintain it, and you will keep focusing on yourself to their detriment. (See Guilt: The Useless Emotion.)

Even when divorce is for the good, it is still a negative experience. Splitting up after years of partnership is often ugly and fraught with bad behavior. Sometimes, it takes all your energy to get through each minute. If you didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to help your adult children while your life felt as if it were falling apart, forgive yourself. Painful, shocking, and life-changing as it may be for them, they haven’t lost a parent. You lost a partner. A 1995 study found divorce the most wrenching experience after the death of a child. All that pain is bound to produce some regrettable behavior. Apologize to your adult children. Allow all the lessons to inform future decisions, and resist cynicism. If your children see you moving forward with optimism and openness, they will follow suit.

There are many challenges during and after a split. Each family member is emotionally needy, suffering, and freaked out while it is happening, so erratic behavior is normal. The only exception is if one partner already has a new love object; but, even then, there’s emotional fall-out.  It just may be harder to discern. If you see yourself behaving irrationally, have compassion. Don’t judge, accept. It’s all part of the deal. The worst thing you can do is deny your true feelings; because, if suppressed, they will come back to wreak havoc later. Children are very astute, even young ones. They will know if you are not being honest with yourself. Set an example of emotional congruence, “What you see is the real me.” This gives them permission to express their feelings, and move through them. Show your adult children how living a full life means embracing everything, not just the happy times, and they will become more resilient.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.