Divorce and “The Invisible Children”
We tend to assume that our college age or adult kids are the least upset by our marital split. Maybe we’ve even waited until the kids were off to college before starting the process of separation or divorce. But too often we end up blindsided by our son or daughter’s unexpected rage, their refusal to talk to us, or maybe their own self-destructive behavior. How can we help our children during this difficult time?
It turns out that having your parents divorce when you are making your own way in the world can be unsettling in ways we may not have considered.
“Sometimes, they can be suddenly and utterly haunted by the possibility that their entire childhood family life was fake. They can begin to question their own perceptions about many things,” says Dr. Lauren Behrman, a clinical psychologist, mediator, parent coordinator and collaborative divorce professional who works with children and families during divorce, and helps parents prioritize their children’s needs over their conflict post divorce .
The developmental tasks of late adolescence and early adulthood include successfully separating from one’s childhood family and establishing one’s identity as an adult. “Part of successfully pushing off into the world depends upon having something solid to push off from,” says Behrman, “that becomes extremely complicated when one’s family has suddenly lost its unity and stability.”
Sometimes parents separate while their children are away. This can create an unsettling sense of mystery about where their mom or dad is living which ends up draining their focus from their own life, she says. And of course, at a time in life when your children are contemplating or navigating their own romantic relationships, your divorce can give them new reason to question their ability to be in a relationship or even to know what a good relationship looks like.
Dr. Jeff Zimmerman, a clinical psychologist who works with divorcing and divorced families and has co-authored two books on divorce (Adult Children of Divorce and The Co-parenting Survival Guide) adds, “Adult children often have more to contend with as they may be concerned about younger siblings who are still at home, may know more information than a younger child about what has happened in the family, and may fall into the caretaker or protector role for a parent.” To make matters worse, these children are often not even considered in a significant way by the legal system (except maybe around needs for college) if they have reached the age of majority. Yet, a 19 year-old may have a much harder time adjusting to their parents’ divorce than a 5 year-old. According to Dr. Zimmerman, “How parents divorce and then live as a divorced family can go a long way towards helping children cope with this major change in the family.”
Unlike our pre-schoolers, our middle school kids and even our high schoolers, adult children are much less likely to ask for and receive help and support. “They are the invisible age group” says Behrman.
Enlightened parents have the power to provide emotional support and protection for their college age and young adult children, by choosing divorce processes that give a voice to their children, creating structure and plans for time that family will be together, and being mindful about the messages they give their children.
Please join us for an evening with Jeff Zimmerman and Lauren Behrman to learn about some of biggest pitfalls for college age and adult kids experiencing parental breakup and find out what we can do as parents to help them cope and thrive.
Wednesday, November 4th