How to Talk About Your Divorce With Your Adult Children

Adult children are not immune from emotional trauma when older couples get divorced.
Adult children are not immune from emotional trauma when older couples get divorced.

by Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT

One of the most difficult steps in the divorce process is talking about your decision with your adult children. It may feel like admitting a failure, or letting them down.

Divorce is a major life crisis for all family members and should be treated as such, even when your children are no longer “kids.” Children who are adults when their parents divorced consistently report years later the news of their parents’ divorce “rocked the very foundation” of their world.

You are making a good start and doing the best you can. You are reading this blog post. Give yourself permission not to be perfect. No one is perfect. Breathe deeply; you and your children can get through this difficult time together. These tips will help guide you through this process.

  1. Schedule a time when you can speak with your children together and preferably in person. Siblings benefit from the support system they can provide each other. When you are scheduling the time to talk, tell them you have something important to discuss with them. Assure them no one is sick or dying. If they ask you what you want to talk about, tell them you prefer to discuss it in person when you are together.

If it isn’t possible to speak in person, schedule a time to speak via Skype, Face Time or another video chat program. Avoid telling them via telephone and especially resist the temptation to communicate via email. It is too impersonal.

  1. Plan your presentation to your children in advance. Make some notes about what you plan to say and review them so you are familiar with what you intend to say. Anticipate what they may say to you. You can have the notes in front of you, if you wish, and simply say, “We have made some notes because what we are going to be talking about is very important for all of us and we don’t want to forget anything.”

Remember your children will likely be in emotional shock after you tell them your intentions to end your marriage. They will not be able to absorb everything you say this first time. Be prepared to have the same conversation with them multiple times. Their shock and grieving will interfere with them being able to fully take in all that you are sharing.

  1. Explain the two of you have decided to end your marriage because you have problems between you have not been able to resolve. Avoid using the word “divorce” because it is laden with negative connotations.
  1. Avoid blaming each other. This is the time for the two of you show a united front to your children. Remember this news will shatter their view of their family as they have known it for many years. Blaming each other puts them in the middle of your pain and conflict, causes them to experience divided loyalty and forces the impression they need to choose sides, as well as feel guilt for loving both of you. Adult children report they hated being put in this position and feeling that each parent was attempting to form an alliance with them against the other parent.
  1. Tell them what will remain the same. Tell them that you are all still family, you will always be their parents and your intention is to be amicable so that you can both attend family gatherings and not create tension for them and their significant others. If they are still in college, tell them if you will be continuing the financial arrangements you have had in place. Tell them if one of you intends to stay in the family home. Assure them they will continue to have the emotional support of both parents in the newly restructured family.
  1. Tell them what will not remain the same. You may be unable to continue the financial arrangements you had regarding college. You may intend to sell the family home. If you are helping them pay off college loans and won’t be able to continue doing so, inform them. Assure them you will do everything possible to assist them financially, as you have in the past, while at the same time acknowledging there will be some economic impact as the family restructures. It’s important to be neutral and factual. Resist being a victim or martyr. It will only make them feel guilty or angry at their other parent.
  1. Remember, no matter how old your children are, you are still their parents. It is your job to put their feelings above yours and provide them with the support they need to hear, feel and understand. Acknowledge you realize the announcement is a shock and their feelings (anger, sadness, grief, shock, etc.) are normal. Focus on and be empathetic with THEIR feelings. Don’t talk about your feelings, e.g., how you haven’t been happy for years, how you deserve to be happy, etc. Having just received such painful news, they will be unable to express their happiness for you, and it is unreasonable for you to expect them to do so. Bear in mind their familial foundation has just been rocked and their family history has been rewritten. They have become members of the “lost nest” generation. There will be no “family nest” to return to at the holidays.
  1. Tell them you still believe in family and you hope they will too. This doesn’t mean that they will not be able to having a strong and happy relationship. Tell them you don’t expect them to take care of you emotionally or physically. This is your job, not theirs. Tell them you have, or plan to have, your own support system separate from them and you want them to establish a support system for themselves as well.

Online groups for adult children whose parents are divorcing can be helpful. The books “A Grief Out of Season: When Your Parents Divorce in Your Adult Years,” and “The Way They Were: Dealing with Your Parents’ Divorce after a Lifetime” (both available via Amazon.com with excellent reviews) will help them realize they are not alone.

  1. Avoid telling them you stayed together or delayed restructuring your family because of them. This will make them feel guilty for your unhappy marriage. They will recall their childhood memories and wonder: ‘What was real and what wasn’t real? Were you really happy on those family vacations? Has my whole life been a sham?’ Divorce destabilizes the family system and inevitably shakes every family member’s perception of their past, their present and their future.
  1. Assure them that this will be a process for all of you to move through, at our own pace and in your own way. Assure them you will always love them and you will always be there for them in whatever ways will be most helpful to them. You want them to know they aren’t alone so they don’t become isolated and depressed. Encourage them to speak with a counselor about their feelings. Tell them you have spoken with or intend to speak with a counselor as well, because you have learned the end of a marriage is a major life stressor for all family members, second only to the death of a loved one. This too shall pass.