With the increase in “gray divorces,” more studies are considering the impact on children over 18. Support groups and media even have an acronym for adult children of divorce (ACOD), and a recent movie with this acronym as its title — a comedy, no less — addresses the topic.
Galena Rhoades, a research professor at the University of Denver, has examined some of the work by social scientists and found that gray divorce can be confusing for young adults, especially if parents had not been combative. “Often divorces among older people are not about conflict but more about disconnection,” she says. “The couple doesn’t have anything in common anymore.”
Young adults often blame themselves, believing their parents stayed together only for their sake or that the empty nest caused the divorce. Parents should reassure them that’s not the case, Rhoades advises.
When conflict causes the split, parents need to avoid what Rhoades calls the “parentified child” — when the young adult becomes a parent’s caretaker, especially emotionally. Rhoades often finds that adult children encourage parents to rely on them, which is a difficult and inappropriate role.
Some parents also manipulate the children to take sides and pit one parent against the other. Adult children don’t want to get caught in the middle, so they begin to pull away from both parents, Rhoades says. The kids don’t call, email or text either parent in order to avoid causing a rift between them. “They just stop sharing news and become disconnected, and not in a good way,” she says.
Gray divorce often happens as adult children are beginning — or even permanently establishing — their own romantic relationships, says Elizabeth Thayer, a therapist in Avon, Conn., who has written several books on divorce. “The experience shakes their capacity to make decisions about the relationships they are embarking on,” she says. They might even throw themselves into new relationships that they unwittingly sabotage.
What can parents do to help minimize the impact of divorce? The most important step, Thayer says, is to remember that although the marriage dissolved, the family unit remains. Parents still need to maintain a relationship with their kids — and be civil to each other — regardless of the children’s ages.
“Adult children have weddings, graduations, the birth of grandchildren and other big life events, and they need their parents to function well,” she adds. “Those significant events are not supposed to be about the divorce but about celebrations of their children.”
Thayer, who works with couples in collaborative divorces and mediation, concedes that in even in the most amicable situations, parents are emotionally distraught. She suggests they seek a support network so they don’t turn to their adult children.
Parents should work together to establish new traditions for holidays and vacations as they set up separate households so that children don’t feel pulled in different directions, she says. The goal needs to be preserving the family unit and to “help the children move through this in the most successful way possible.”
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.