Divorce: the impact on grown-up children

Adult children of divorce, otherwise known as ACODs, are becoming a wide-spread phenomenon as couples choose to split later on in life.

Though most current studies concerning the effects of divorce discuss the responses of younger children to divorce, those that look at the impact on adult children indicate that the event may still produce some negative effects. A study found that men with late-divorcing parents tend to be socially and economically disadvantaged compared with peers with parents who stayed together. Meanwhile, ACODs who were over 20 when their parents separated were more likely to have their own first partnership or marriage break up by age 33. And, very often, older children and grown-ups experience much of the same trauma (grief, anxiety, etc.) as younger children of divorcing parents.

ACODs go through a grieving process when their parents divorce, even if they are aware of a history of discord in their parents’ relationship. This may include periods of anger at one or both parents. There may be a strong feeling that their family is irreversibly fragmented and there may be feelings of confusion concerning how to relate to their parents. ACODs may also question how holidays and other family traditions can ever be meaningful again.

Quotes from some ACODs on their parents’ divorce:

  • “I’ve been surprised by how upset I’ve been, because at 28 you would assume you’d be past it and because I know that the divorce is the right thing for my parents. But it feels as though it’s not just they who are separating, but us as a family. It’s very upsetting.”
  • “I had my dad crying on one shoulder and my mum on the other. They’d say stuff about each other, too. Because I was grown-up, they appealed to my adult side. I found myself in massive shock, wondering how on earth I’d never noticed that my family was dysfunctional – and were all families that seemed happy dysfunctional? All my ideals were absolutely shattered. No matter how old you are, the child in you reacts.”
  • “My mum, who was in her late 60s at the time of the divorce, had never paid a bill. I had to show her how. She hadn’t done any of this stuff before. Two years on, I still have to call her every day. In many ways, it was like my dad had died, only it was worse because it was his choice to leave her – and she spares me no details about her feelings towards him.”

The authors of the book, A Grief Out of Season, write, “It is a big deal when parents divorce – no matter how old or independent their children. Divorce shakes the roots of each member’s self-perception.”

So, how can ACODs cope with their parents’ separation? Some tips for coping:

  1. The grieving process is normal. A parental divorce is a painful loss for children, regardless of age. It is normal to cry, to feel sad.
  2. Although often difficult, it’s important to try to forgive parental weaknesses and faults. You will heal easier and sooner with a little understanding and reasonable expectations. Holding onto anger slows the healing process and keeps one from moving forward to a more positive new life.
  3. There may be pressure to take sides, but try not to be drawn into the middle of the conflict. Try to remain as loving as possible to both parents. At the end of the day, both are your parents. That fact will never change.
  4. A support group or professional counselor may be helpful in allowing you to sort out your feelings.
  5. Create new traditions by incorporating favorites from your childhood. Continue to build strong relationships with family members.  Though this process is stressful, it is important to remember that in time, life will be back to normal, even though normal may be different from what one once expected.

SOURCE: The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/14/divorce-adult-offspring-acods; The Ohio State University, Family and Consumer Sciences

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